Games volunteers learn international etiquette tips

Pointers on not pointing

Posted: Monday, February 27, 2006

When the international guests arrive for the Arctic Winter Games next week, it may not be a good idea to point. Even if they ask for directions.

That was just one of the messages from the World Bridge training session at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Friday. Pointing with the index finger — to a table, a landmark or a person — can be considered quite rude.

Other common gestures are suspect, too. Crossing the index and middle finger may be a sign for good luck when flashed to a member of Team Alaska, but don’t send best wishes to a Russian athlete that way. In Russia, crossed fingers are offensive. So is the thumb-to-index finger “OK” gesture.

“It’s worse than our middle finger by far,” said Krista Rahe, the session’s instructor.

Using the whole hand instead of a pointed finger is a way to avoid misunderstanding, Rahe said. That advice will come in handy for Lindsey Sagami, a Transportation Security Ad-ministration worker. Sagami also will work as a Games volunteer.

“It seemed like I’d read something about that, but it was nothing I’d really had an opportunity to use,” Sagami said of the gesturing etiquette learned at the session. “I can pass that along to my co-workers as well.”

Rahe specializes in this sort of training. She runs a hospitality company in Denver and came to town to teach the same workshop offered to participants in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, two G-8 economic summits and a variety of other international events.

Subdued nonverbal communication is the safest bet when getting to know international clients, she said.

“Quieter body language is usually seen as much more professional, too,” she said.

Rahe learned how varied gestures can be while training hotel workers in Japan several years ago. During a three-day training session, she often tried to get trainees to move closer to her by gesturing with her index finger. It didn’t work. In Japan, a down turned hand pulled toward the body beckons someone closer. The U.S. version is used for animals in Japan and left mouths agape.

“I don’t think anyone learned a thing during those three days,” she said.

Gestures are just one stumbling block to cross-cultural communication. Giving directions can be a challenge even when an international visitor speaks perfect English. Most of the world, including the AWG visitors from Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, uses kilometers instead of miles to mark the distance between points, so “two miles north” is a call for confusion. Using city blocks usually isn’t any better.

“Use landmarks and elements of time instead of distance,” she said.

Guests will likely need directions to Wells Fargo more than once next week. International guests, a term she said is always preferable to “foreigners,” can exchange currency easily and instantly at banks, hotels and sometimes even newsstands. Wells Fargo banks are the only locations for instant exchange service in Kenai, Soldotna, Seward or Homer, and only for the week of the Games, at that.

“We may wonder, ‘Why do they want that?’ It’s because in their country, they can,” Rahe said.

Food service is another area of difficulty. Gratuity is part of the bill in many other countries, as is tax. The bill isn’t dropped after dessert, either, because dining around the world, compared to dining in the United States, is more social than speedy. Indicating that gratuity is not included on the bill, not delivering it until asked to do so and being prepared to explain that sales tax made the $10 meal cost $12 should help diffuse problems, Rahe said.

And if your hotel has a coffee maker in each room, put out some tea.

“A lot of the world drinks tea in the morning,” she said.

All these steps are small ones that can go a long way in keeping paying customers happy during the Games and during the summer season. A firm handshake offered to a guest whose culture doesn’t include much physical contact could result in a guest fishing with another guide, staying in another hotel or buying souvenirs from a different vendor.

Rahe’s main credo for international service — match your body language to that of your guests — is one trainee Dana Woodard said she’ll use at the Visitors and Cultural Center. She works there, and more international visitors turn up every year.

“I think maybe some people, to be more accommodating, try to take the forward steps on everything,” Woodard said. “What she said is, maybe let them be the ones to take the steps forward so you can follow.”

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