Here's part 3 of my interview with Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink: An Other Unexpected Forces that Shape how we Think, Feel and Behave, in which we've discussed the subtle non-verbal cues that make up such an important but neglected part of international business and diplomacy. Here's part 1 and part 2.

SR: You said in your previous answer that 'so much of what determines the success and failure of an interaction is hidden from view in the form of subtle contextual cues'.

Foreign ministries and companies doing business internationally place a lot of emphasis on literacy in the most literal sense – that is, teaching their staff the local language. But it seems to me you are referring to what is sometimes called cultural literacy. What should these organisations be doing to better prepare their staff for interpreting these subtle contextual cues you refer to?

AA: There are three answers to your question, moving from the most obvious to the progressively more obscure. The first, straightforward, answer is that it's always important to understand how your own home culture differs from the cultural backgrounds of the people with whom you're interacting.

Before the Sydney Olympic Games, in mid-2000, I was working part time at a retail store. Our manager distributed a sheet of paper titled 'The Dos and Don'ts of Interacting with Olympic Visitors.' The sheet listed a long series of gestures, verbal patterns and mannerisms that we Australians use freely but which people from one or more foreign cultural backgrounds found offensive. The thumbs-up gesture, for example, is offensive to people in parts of Africa, South America, and the Middle East, just as an extended middle finger is offensive to Australians (but is no different from an extended index or ring finger in other parts of the world). These differences seem trivial, but adopting the wrong gesture can sink an otherwise smooth diplomatic interaction.

The second answer is more complicated. Some cultural differences are less explicit; they're more difficult to enumerate on a list like the one our manager handed to us before the 2000 Olympics. After almost a decade in the US, I continue to exhibit 'tells' that betray me as a foreigner, and each year my students still describe me as 'the Australian professor.' Even with a perfect American accent (my accent is far from American), I'd use words and perhaps even subtle gestures that Americans tend not to use.

My experience isn't unique, so much so that these verbal give-aways have a name — the Biblical term, 'shibboleths' — and they've been used throughout history to distinguish the ingroup from outgroups. During World War II, for example, US soldiers stationed in the Pacific asked unidentified persons to utter the word 'lollapalooza', believing that Japanese soldiers and citizens would confuse the Ls for Rs.

In contrast to the first set of differences, these are difficult or impossible to eliminate, and it's a waste of resources and effort to try. Still, it's worth trying to recognise and catalogue those differences over time in a diplomatic context, because humans are notoriously and reflexively critical of outgroup members, and as these subtle cultural differences mount up, they have the potential to dampen diplomatic relations.

The third answer is the most subtle, and it's the subject of fairly recent research. With the advent of cheaper global travel, widespread global commerce and trade, and the internet, humans are exposed to more cultures in a year than they encountered in their entire lives before the late 20th century. Consequently, we store and slowly take on board foreign cultural habits and worldviews.

Researchers believed, until the early 2000s, that people had to immerse themselves in a foreign culture for many years before they adopted that culture's behaviour patterns and mental styles, but that appears not to be the case. Merely being aware of a foreign cultural ideal or behaviour style makes it more likely that a person will adopt that style, subconsciously, when reminded of or immersed in that culture. When Australian businesspeople and diplomats travel to the US, for example, they unwittingly become Americanised versions of themselves; the same is true of any other foreign culture.

In some of my work, for example, we've shown that Americans, who normally expect relatively little change in weather patterns and stock market data (eg. good weather and the appreciation of a financial stock will continue), adopt a more typically East Asian perception of change (what goes up must come down, and vice versa) when they walk through New York City's Chinatown, an Asian supermarket, or when they're exposed to typically East Asian symbols and images. This result holds true for people who have traveled regularly, particularly those who understand the East Asian concepts of balance and correction.

The short summary, then, is that diplomats who interact in foreign cultural contexts aren't the same people they might be at home, and it's important to work out which aspects of their mental lives might change as they move through those different cultural landscapes.