This weekend marked Austin's fourth year hosting Formula One racing, an event that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors from all around the world. The winner this year, Lewis Hamilton, hails from England. It's a huge event for this town: the Austin Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas attracts more people than South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival combined. So along with some good old Texas hospitality, we've also developed an abiding intercultural awareness.
From business leaders to restaurants to snack bars to shops, it was bound to be a weekend of interesting encounters. With the exception of the Olympics and the World Cup, there is no sporting event with more viewers -- even the Superbowl. Formula 1 weekend is viewed by millions of people around the world -- some 425 million last year. So with the globe watching, it's always a great opportunity to convey our savvy of intercultural etiquette and protocol.
Consider these 4 practical tips as a gentle reminder for anyone hosting international customers:
More Formal Greetings
We've gotten used to a very casual level of familiarity, particularly in restaurants and other service industries. But with international customers, it's best to be ready with a "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" -- "Hi there" is just far too familiar. It's also a good idea to use appropriate titles, along with last names, when conducting a transaction, returning a credit card, or presenting a check or bill. Don't ask, "Hi, John, and how did you enjoy your meal?" as has become a checkout custom in certain restaurants. Until you're invited to use a first name, use Mr., Ms. or Dr. along with the last name. It may be true in the U.S. (as well as in Australia), that we don't want to appear snobbish, or making a class distinction. But Latin Americans, Europeans and Asians use titles when greeting and introducing each other, and they expect us to do the same.
Longer, Later Meals
Dining customs differ around the world. In this country, "eat and run" and "let's grab a bite" are the norm. But that's not the case for many international diners, who consider meals to be social events, meant to be savored. Be prepared for international diners to linger over their meal, order dessert and sit talking over their coffee for a good two or three hours. Even in the heat of summer, some cultures, particularly Latin American, believe that coffee is king -- to be enjoyed after every meal, regardless of the temperature outside. And meals start at different times as well. In Mexico, the main meal is taken at midday -- typically, at around 2:00 p.m. In Spain, the main meal is dinner, and eaten late, often starting at around 10:00 p.m.
Less Personal Space
Different cultures have different concepts of what personal space means, including ours. Do not be surprised or caught off guard if an international visitor seems to be standing too close to you: it could be that they consider an acceptable social distance closer than what most of us do in the U.S. And should you step back or step away, they may take offense -- and terminate the exchange or conversation. By comparison, here are some general standards in the U.S., as delineated in The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall. According to Hall, there are several categories of personal space, each with its own distance: Intimate distance (0 - 18 inches), personal distance for good friends and family members (18 inches - 4 feet), and social distance for acquaintances and colleagues (4-12 feet.) In the U.S., standing too close may be construed as aggressive or pushy, while standing too far away may be seen a sign of disinterest. One possible strategy: allow the international guest to dictate the proximity, so long as it's within your cultural comfort zone.
Yes, Tips are Different
Tipping customs vary around the world. In some areas of Europe and in certain countries, including Australia and Japan, the gratuity is built into the cost of the meal, and tips are not added. Nor is tipping customary in all countries. So servers should not be surprised if they don't receive a tip -- and nor should anyone around to witness it. In fact in some cases, a tip could be construed as a negative: many seasoned international protocol guides will tell you that in Japan, if a tip is left for a server, the Japanese are offended. In other countries, it's customary to tip 5 - 10 percent. In past years, to try and bridge the gap (and help the wait staff), some restaurants in Austin installed tasteful tabletop signs, advising patrons that there would be an automatic 18 percent gratuity added during Formula One Grand Prix weekend. The strategy was a success.
With events like the Grand Prix, Central Texas has become a global destination. It's a terrific opportunity to further our intercultural understanding and show our wisdom. You never know: you may be the first impression an international visitor has of the U.S.A. We did it beautifully this year. Next year, let's make it even better.