Superstition across cultures
We all laugh at colleagues who read their horoscopes. But superstitions around the world have a tangible effect on business and on the motivation of workers. Whatever your personal opinion, it is important in any cross-cultural environment to understand how belief systems affect your colleagues, your employees – and your market.
1. Respect the Russian house spirits (we’re not talking vodka)
Many Russians are uncomfortable with the idea of shaking hands across a doorway. This is where the house spirit is said to reside, and breaching its territory can cause arguments and bad luck. So however rational your Russian counterpart appears, enter, or leave the room fully before extending your hand.
2. Friday 13th, more than a good movie
Few would be brave enough to launch a product on Friday the 13th. This western, mainly Christian superstition could stem from Friday, October 13, 1307, when the Knights Templar were sentenced to death, or from the day of the Crucifixion, or the number present at the Last Supper. Regardless of this, fewer people shop, travel or play the stock market on Friday 13th, according to a report in The Guardian – which means Friday 13th could be a good day for business travellers to snap up the best air fares, or unaffected dealers to make a good trade.
3. Hindus pay respect to their ancestors
Similarly, in India, consumer spending drops during the 16-day Pitru Paksha period, usually in September or October, when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors. This would be an inappropriate time to launch a sales campaign.
4. American stock indices eclipsed by the moon
Natural phenomena play a part in superstition, even among hard-nosed traders. According to a report a few years ago in the Harvard Business Review, a study by an academic at Copenhagen Business School revealed that solar eclipses correlated with lower-than-average returns on four American stock indices. These slumps were reversed the day after the eclipse.
5. Beware of the Icelandic elves
And then there’s the supernatural. Although younger Icelanders may dismiss the idea, there is a firm belief among many of the older generation in the existence of elves, or huldufólk (hidden people). Ridiculous? A recent feature in The Daily Telegraph describes how construction sites have to be moved and highways diverted to protect sacred sites, or giant boulders where elves are said to live, or local workers will not go near them.
6. Geomancers, the architects for good business
The belief in feng shui, also known as geomancy, or the art of creating harmony in one’s surroundings, has an enormous effect on the way business is done in Hong Kong and increasingly, China. No building in Hong Kong is designed without consulting a geomancer to ensure the right orientation and shape. Both the HSBC headquarters and the Bank of China are said to have employed feng shui masters but plenty of western companies use feng shui, too, not least, according to the site fengshuilondon.net, British Airways, Coca Cola and Hilton Hotels. Events and product launches are arranged around auspicious dates; the eighth of the month being lucky and the fourth a non-starter. In some companies, even the colours of the directors’ cars are dictated by the feng shui master.
Why are these things important? Because, according to a 2014 study published by academics at the University of Cologne, activating a superstition boosts an individual’s confidence, and as a result, their productivity. Cultural sensitivity aside, of course.