Perception Trumps Intention

If you were a billionaire, you’d be an easy target, too.

Over the years we’ve admired the communications techniques of Bill Gates (like this incredible visual aid at TED), and we’ve also picked on his behaviors (see: slouching billionaire).

Yesterday, Bill Gates went under the microscope again – not for his generous philanthropy, or for being the founder and current chairman of the board at Microsoft. The international community erupted after his “rude” handshake when meeting South Korea President Park Geun-hye.

Bill Gates President Park Geun-hye Handshake

In Korean culture, as well as elsewhere in Asia, a one-hand shake is notably casual. Rather than respectful, it is reserved for times when the other person is a good friend, of the same or younger age. Using one hand with the other tucked in the pants pocket is considered rude, and it is done when one is expressing superiority to the other.

Immediately upon seeing the handshake, the international community began debating and speculating whether ignorance or intention was the reason for the one-hand shake. While it made for great media fodder – as well as a PR issue for Gates’ team – I bring it up because it illustrates a critical lesson for us as communicators.

It’s always about our listeners and what they perceive. In fact, our intention doesn’t matter at all. The only thing that matters is the perception of our listeners. We must be aware of what we are doing behaviorally, as well as what the consequences are.

Plain and simple: Consistent message is always our goal. If you plan to build business ties and convey respect, that means a two-handed handshake in South Korea. We can all learn from experiences like this.

After all, how many times have you extended your hand for a handshake?

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