Obama’s Gum Goof

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President Obama has done it again. He has managed to offend another world power. This time it is the Chinese, and he did it by chewing gum during his trip to Bejing for the APEC Summit 2014. The Chinese are in an absolute uproar over Obama’s gum goof. The media are all over this international incident as you might imagine.

Chewing gum is not exactly appropriate professional behavior. It is definitely not proper presidential behavior. Chewing gum is something that you do in private, not in the presence of others unless you happen to be a baseball player.

The Chinese were offended on two counts by this incident. First of all anyone who knows anything about Chinese etiquette would know that the Chinese value proper protocol in their business activities. Chewing gum is not on their radar. The president, who frequently chews gum, claiming that it is Nicorette, should certainly know that.

The second point is that the Chinese government went to great lengths to put their best foot forward for this international occasion. They closed factories to reduce their infamous smog in Bejing, and they  reminded the Chinese people to use their best manners during this time.

What an insult for the President to ignore all etiquette and protocol while a guest in China.

The next time you think about chewing gum, make sure no one is watching unless you are on the pitcher’s mound.

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One thought on “Obama’s Gum Goof

  1. Peggy Roney

    Hah! President Obama’s faux pas with the gum will seem miniscule after they experience Trump. I’m sure the Chinese noted his treatment of PM Angela Merkel–facing away from her and refusing to shake her hand–ignoring her– and W Bush’s treatment of her as well–massaging her shoulders. Impudent may be the better word to describe those two.

    Because courtesy is your field (and our goal), I am sharing the name of a priceless little book (157 pages) by Anne-Laure Monfret. I heard Ms. Monfret discuss her book at a conference, US-China Peoples Friendship Association, in Washington, DC. The title is Saving Face in China: A First-Hand Guide for any Traveler to China. Any visitor will find it valuable. Business people will find it indispensable. I think you will find it fascinating and well as practical. I have included below one person’s review of the book. Many more are online.

    Peggy Roney

    How To Save Face In China. The Book.

    By Dan Harris on May 11, 2012

    Unless you have a perfect mastery of Chinese language, symbolism, and social nuances (and who even has that of their own country, anyway?), consider picking up a copy of Anne-Laure Monfret’s Saving Face in China, a practical book aimed at aiding you in making a decent impression on your Chinese business contacts.

    Monfret is a French management and HR specialist who spent eight years in China. Her book addresses the trickiest areas of Chinese culture through thoughtful explanations and first-hand stories. As she illustrates, it takes a whole lot more than common courtesy to navigate Chinese business meals, deals, and conflicts, all of which are fraught with complex hierarchies and expectations. Alternating between big-picture concepts (e.g., western versus Chinese notions of “efficiency”) and concrete do’s and don’ts (do give a nice bottle of cognac as a gift, but never, ever give a clock), the book is a crash course in avoiding major social gaffes.

    Monfret concedes (and I tend to agree) that you are not going to torpedo a big business deal by, say, declining a second helping of chicken feet because most Chinese give westerners sufficient cultural wiggle room. That being said, your causing a loss of “face” can hurt you and your business venture.

    Most English speakers have a general grasp of what it means to “lose face” and westerners certainly value their egos and reputations. But for the Chinese, Monfret emphasizes that causing someone to lose face is easier and more serious than most westerners realize. Perhaps most concerning is how difficult it is to restore face once the damage is done—if you want any shot at making amends, you had better use the right variant of the Chinese word for “sorry” and follow the other tips Monfret sets forth in her section on apologies. There is no doubt that knowing China’s cultural customs can aid you in doing business in China and Saving Face in China makes for a quick and enjoyable way to get there.

    Saving Face acknowledges the oddness of Chinese social customs without belittling Chinese culture, focusing instead on the historical and psychological context of these traditions. Embracing both the absurdity and the dead-seriousness of the Chinese concept of “face,” Monfret presents a great deal of information in a straightforward, guidebook-like style that’s perfectly suited for a casual in-flight read. My only beef with the book was that it read as though it had not been reviewed by a native-speaking English editor. As a French major who lived two years in France (during 4th grade and my junior year in college), I mention this as partial revenge.
    Tags: business culture, China’s business customs, Chinese business culture, Chinese culture, Doing Business in China, etiquette, Face (sociological concept)

    Dan Harris is internationally regarded as a leading authority on legal matters related to doing business in China and in other emerging economies in Asia. Forbes Magazine, Business Week, Fortune Magazine, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist, CNBC, The New York Times, and many other major media players, have looked to him for his perspective on international law issues.


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