Protocol Reconsidered

“I have no need for a protocol droid.”
–Owen Lars, Star Wars

Why on Earth (or off it), you might wonder, would anyone need a protocol droid? It’s never really explained in the Star Wars universe, but a lot of what these shiny metal beings did can be inferred from watching the entire series. They are interpreters, primarily, among several million beings and were strict minders of manners and behavior (“I beg your pardon, General Solo, but that just wouldn’t be proper!”). Another thing they had the responsibility for was apologizing in the event one party or another in a conversation said or did something to give offense. They are also big sticklers for titles–making certain that the individuals being discussed were always addressed by their proper ranks.

C-3PO and his robot peers could teach us a thing or two about how to interact with individuals of different professional and social standing in an unfamiliar work environment–especially when the work is overseas. Sometimes we give offense without meaning to. While we don’t have protocol droids at the moment, we do have some handy reference guides we can use as starting points, such as Bow, Kiss, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries.

I’ve been thinking about protocol again lately as I’m planning for a trip to France next year. It’s very easy to act like an American when you’re in America. Even at international space conferences with attendees from across the planet, if the conference is being held in America, American social and business rules apply. However, being the self-conscious sort, I try to dial down the attitude a bit if I’m going to be out of my element.

If you go outside your native country to do business or sometimes even if you visit an organization unfamiliar to you in your own country, I think the best things you can do are:

  • Cut the amount of speaking you do in half.
  • Listen and observe how others behave–including their vocal volume, personal space practices, eye contact, and physical contact.
  • Be extra polite. It might feel stilted or overly formal, but that beats being considered rude.
  • Be open to trying the local food/drinks/customs if you’re invited to do so. What’s the point of travel without learning or experiencing something new?
  • Try to learn bits and pieces of the local language, even if it’s just proper greetings.
  • Consider yourself an ambassador of sorts, because whether you like it or not, the individuals you meet will already have preconceived notions about you and you have the opportunity to change the minds of doubters or reinforce those who think favorably of people from your country or organization. (Of course there are people who will never change their attitudes, but there are people like that everywhere.)

Despite all these reminders, it’s still possible to relax and keep an open mind. If you’re new to a country, you’re not going to be expected to know everything, but good-faith efforts to listen, follow protocol, and learn will go a long way toward helping you gain acceptance in a land that’s not your own.

I guess I’d better get cracking on those French lessons, while I’m thinking about it. Where are those protocol droids when I need them?


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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