Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cognitive Dissonance in Malaysia: Why won’t you shake my hand?

While training a course I developed called “Working with the World,” in Malaysia, I was explaining the importance of handshakes and the United State’s perception of such. As young as I can possibly remember, my father taught me the importance of a firm handshake. My Grandfathers also drilled and reinforced the handshake routine to my siblings and I. Counter to this popular U.S. belief, in Asia and other countries, the handshake is less firm than the majority demographic in the United States. Handshakes definitely send a message. Although, the most important part in communication is not the message sent, it is the message that is received.

Cognitive Dissonance is a condition first proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger, in 1956. I really enjoy using these two words, so I thought, “How can I tie these cool words into a cultural story I have experienced?” Surprise, surprise, another world faux pas emerged. My mind is in a constant strain of cognitive dissonance.

We have associations with a number of handshakes. Firstly, we have the bone crusher handshake. This handshake sends a message that I am dominant and I will over power you. In actuality, people associate the bone crusher with less intelligence and social grace. Sometimes this handshake requires the griped individual receiving the crushing to say, “Uncle,” in order to get released. A more accepted, classic handshake is a firm shake. A warm, firm grip is the most often used handshake in the U.S. This handshake is a sincere greeting, deal sealing and a goodbye gesture. The firm and warm handshake is a full hand squeeze. This shake is perceived as being genuine. However, if your hand is cold and clammy (sweaty) it will send the opposite meaning. Hint: Warm hands under hot faucet if this is a natural tendency of yours, as this will help to overcome this unfortunate bias. Lastly, there is the limp noodle shake (common in many cultures around the world). This handshake sends a nonverbal message or association with a weakness, not perceived in a good light, unless it is received by the opposite gender. Many cultural faux pas have been delivered around the world with handshakes.

Touching can be taboo (major faux pas), as I personally found out in Malaysia. This contradicting cognition served as a wake-up call that compelled my mind to modify my existing beliefs, to minimize the amount of my personal dissonance (conflict) in my thoughts.
As I began to share handshakes with the class in
Malaysia, one-by-one, I could see that most of the students were excited to experience inclusion of the shakes; however, one very nice lady refused to put her hand out and shake mine. Respectfully, I moved on to the next student. As I did, the Chinese manager, asked, “Do you know why she didn’t shake your hand?” I responded with “No.” The manager encouraged the lady to inform me. Her response was, “I am a married woman, I am a Muslim and it is forbidden for me to touch another man. If I touch another man, it is the same as having committed adultery.”

At the time, I had absolutely no idea why she wouldn’t shake my hand. Some people in the U.S. refuse to shake someone’s hand when they want to insult. Honestly, I was experiencing a little insult from the non shake, but, I am also open to new experiences, so my dissonance did not show.

I am totally fascinated and in awe of this tiny morsel of cultural knowledge that stumped the instructor (me). I love to teach diversity classes, as I am always learning from my adult students. I acknowledge, I don’t know and won’t ever know, all there is to know. Cultural awareness and know-how can not be learned in a 4 hour corporate class or a six week semester, it is a life long journey. Thus, my intercultural journey of 40 years has only just begun.

Recommended Reading:

Morrison, Terri; Conaway, Wayne; and Bordon, George. (1994). Kiss, Bow, or Shake hands: How to do Business in 60 Countries. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams Publishing

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