Etiquette at work

Respecting cultural norms part of being a good guest

One of the most important ways to be successful when traveling overseas is to be aware of the differences between the culture you live in and the culture you are visiting. While in South Korea, I’ve been greeted by a slight bow from the host or hostess at the hotel dining area as I arrive for breakfast. Conversely, in the United States, I don’t remember the last time I was greeted with a bow from the host or hostess at a restaurant.

When entering a different culture, know what the standards are, respect them, and be ready to reflect those standards in your actions where appropriate.

Cultural differences aren’t restricted to countries. We see differences in cultures within different regions in the United States. One example is the use of “Sir” and Ma’am,” which is more prevalent and accepted in the South than the North.


In fact, cultures in a company may vary among locations. I once taught at a Fortune 100 company in New York. Employees on the third floor dressed informally. Yet, on the 23d floor, where senior management was located, the dress was business formal. I remember asking employees on the third floor if they were prepared to be appropriately dressed if called to the 23d floor at a moment’s notice.

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I became aware that cultures can be as unique as individual families when a seventh grader visiting the Emily Post Institute asked, “My bedtime is 11 p.m. Sometimes I go to my friend Tommy’s house to spend the night. His bedtime is 10 p.m. Why do I have to go to bed at Tommy’s bedtime?” I responded, “When you’re in Tommy’s house, you play by Tommy’s rules.”

When you enter anyone’s culture — a client’s office, a different region of the country, or a different country altogether — know the norms of the culture you’re entering and show respect for those norms. In some cases, you may want to adjust your actions.

Where I might casually hand out a business card at home, in South Korea I take time to present it with both hands and have the information facing the person so it is easy for him or her to receive and read it. It’s one way I can show respect for the culture I am visiting.

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