I like it when the theoretical lessons I teach in my seminars are validated by experience.
I’m in Dubai, at a dinner with one of my hosts and another guest. Naturally, we got to talking about etiquette. The guest wanted to know if etiquette is simply different in different cultures or if there is any commonality that crosses cultural boundaries.
I began answering him by affirming that etiquette does vary among cultures and it changes over time. A simple example: During my visit, my host and I met numerous people both on a business and personal basis. Greetings had gone well — American-style: Look them in the eye and add a pleasant verbal greeting to go along with a firm handshake. But I noticed a difference in style when my host, who is a man, greeted another man by kissing on the cheek three times. They would go to the right; they would go to the left; and then they would go to the right a second time.
In the United States that most assuredly is not the custom, even among good male friends. For my generation even good friends would greet each other with a handshake. More recently it has become more common to see two men who know each other well greet each other with a hug. While our cultural greeting norm is changing over time, you are still not likely to see even one kiss on the cheek between male friends.
I explained to the guest that although the forms of greeting — three kisses or a hug or a handshake — vary, they all demonstrate a key underlying principle of etiquette, which is to honor and show respect for people as you greet them. While the act of showing respect is universal, the means or particular manner varies among cultures and can also change over time. For example, in current American culture, women no longer curtsy and men no longer bow in greeting as they did in the 18th century.
Sometimes, explaining the differences among manners and the principles of etiquette seems like an academic exercise. But here in Dubai, watching my host greet other men reminded me that in the real world principles of etiquette such as consideration and respect are universal, that they do cross cultural boundaries and are consistent over time, while the outward way we demonstrate that respect is a reflection of current cultural practice.