Handshakes and Introductions: A Primer for Global Communicators

Today we continue with an excerpt from my recent position paper, “The Global Communicator’s Welcome to Washington Guide.”

The most obvious step for solidifying bonds with reporters is the direct approach. Write or call reporters who cover the diplomatic beat at major newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal and introduce yourself as a resource for them and to gain their insights. You may find a similar move with media outlets like the Washington Diplomat worthwhile.

 There is no question that you will need to cope with personal as well as professional trials. Even if your native tongue is English, the U.S. celebrates unique values and traditions. This means that international communicators must deal with not only the business pressures of navigating the American media, they must also find answers to such questions as

  • Why do government offices, schools, and many businesses close on the Fourth of July (U.S. Independence Day)?
  • Why do Americans insist on referring to football as soccer (there is a separate and very popular American sport known as football)?
  • How can 32 degrees be considered cold? Where I come from, that is a hot summer day (the difference between the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales)?

Another cultural variation: It is important to realize that how one strikes up conversations in America may differ from other cultures across the globe. In many other countries, the level of eye contact is fairly low and conversations begin on an aloof, deferential note. If this is your first posting to Washington, be prepared. Americans tend to be more boisterous and openly friendly at first (of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and the U.S. certainly has its share of introverts; many of them, however, have learned—or perhaps been forced—to adopt at least somewhat the outgoing personality considered dominant here).

On the other hand, Americans may seem physically distant due to a tradition of more personal space. Many other cultures feature close proximity and touching during conversation. Try to crowd an American or touch him upon a first meeting and you are likely to get a frosty reaction.

Of course, much of one’s preparation for a Washington posting should take place beforehand. Read about the U.S. before arriving. Talk to others who have lived or visited there. And don’t focus only on your upcoming job. Get a handle on the entire lifestyle from popular culture to the educational system, and transportation to dining habits.

What Americanisms beyond the Fourth of July and the Fahrenheit scale confused you upon your arrival in the States?



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