Bill Gates’ Handshake Gaffe In South Korea: Lack Of Manners Or Simply Western Casual Style?

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Bill Gates Greets South Korea's president Park Geun-hye
Bill Gates Greets South Korea's president Park Geun-hye

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) founder and multibillionaire Bill Gates may be one of the most powerful, influential and charitable people on earth, but he seems to be somewhat lacking in manners.

Gates, who is reportedly worth some $67 billion and is the third-richest man on the planet, caused a ruckus in South Korea on Monday, when he greeted the country’s new female president, Park Geun-hye, by shaking her hands with one hand, while keeping his other hand in his pocket in a casual manner.

Such an informal, one-handed greeting is considered rude in South Korea’s deeply hierarchical, Confucian society, particularly between two people who are not close friends, according to ABC News. It also suggests an attitude of superiority.

Such behavior would also be frowned upon in other Asian nations.

“Perhaps it was his all-American style, but an open jacket with [one] hand in pocket? That was way too casual. It was very regretful,” said Chung Jin-suk, secretary general at the Korean National Assembly.

“It’s a head of state we’re talking about,” said Rick Yoon, a brand retailer in Seoul, according to ABC.

“And she’s a lady. This is not just a Korean thing. It’s an international protocol. Maybe it was intentional. Otherwise, he has a very strange habit.”

South Korean media piled on Gates as well.

The Joongang Ilbo daily newspaper wrote: “Cultural difference or bad manners?,” while another paper, DongAh Ilbo, wondered if it was “a disrespectful handshake or a casual, friendly handshake?”  

President Park’s office apparently has not yet commented on the incident.

Some netizens in both in the U.S. and South Korea were also outraged by Gates’ apparent tasteless snafu while meeting President Park.  

Cho Park, a Korean student studying in New York, said, “I don’t know if that was ignorance or just plain disrespect. It was pretty rude of him. The thing is I’m not sure if it is rude in Western culture,” ABC reported.

“The President represents the nation. It is absurd that Gates ignored Korean culture and manner. There is no reason why he wouldn’t know this,” wrote one netizen, according to the Korea Times newspaper.

Another netizen also blasted Gates. “As an old saying goes, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ he should have followed what people do in Korea.”

Some Koreans noted wryly that when Gates met with former President Kim Dae-jung (a man), the tech titan respectfully used both of his hands during their introductory handshake greeting.

Interestingly, as South Korea media noted, Gates also once gave a one-handed greeting to former President Lee Myung-bak, suggesting perhaps that Gates was showing his political bias – i.e., support for opposition leader Kim, but not so much respect for ruling party leaders Park and Lee.

However, some observers in South Korea excused Gates, citing different cultural customs in the West, noting that the former Microsoft chief has done the same thing with other world leaders, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Francois Hollande and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

“It is inappropriate to force Western people to follow Confucianism culture,” one understanding commentator said, while another noted that “Gates is not a Korean. People should not judge him by our cultural standards.”

While some anonymous online Korean social critics may have flinched over Gates’ lack of tact, it is a rather minor issue, some experts contend.

“A handshake with one hand would not be a big deal in the U.S., so I would not read too much into the manner with which Gates shook the president’s hand,” Robert Kelly, associate professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University in South Korea, told the Korea Times.

“He is not a Korean, so it is rather unfair to judge him by standards he likely did not know. More important though is, in the U.S., excessive deference to those ‘above’ you is considered arrogant elitism.”

A Korean social researcher and consultant, Bae Jong-chan, partially agreed with Kelly.

“It is improper to stretch the meaning of Gates’ handshake manner because it is as if people are judging the whole by a small part,” he said.

“What is more important is what he said and how he behaved during the meeting with President Park, which did not cause any problems.”

But Bae added: “It is true that the manner of his handshake could be regarded as a sign of discourtesy by Korean cultural standards. It would have been much nicer if a world figure such as Gates observed an accepted standard of good manners in a foreign land.”

Gates was making a three-day visit to South Korea to promote TerraPower, a startup company which is developing next-generation nuclear reactors.

According to eDiplomat, South Korean society and business customs are very formal, while proper etiquette is championed.

“The bow is the traditional Korean greeting, although it is often accompanied by a handshake among men,” eDiplomat said. “To show respect when shaking hands, support your right forearm with your left hand. Korean women usually nod slightly and will not shake hands with Western men. Western women may offer their hand to a Korean man. Bow when departing. Younger people wave (move their arm from side to side).”

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