I like it when the theoretical lessons I teach in my seminars are validated experientially.
I’m in Dubai, and last night I had dinner with one of my hosts and a guest she had asked to join us. 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 to etiquette that crosses cultural boundaries.
I began answering him by affirming that etiquette does vary between cultures and it changes over time. A simple example: During my visit, my host and I had 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 with whom he was clearly friendly. They would greet each other 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 USA that most assuredly is not the custom, even amongst good male friends. For my generation even good friends would greet each other with a handshake. More recently it’s become more common in the USA 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’re still not likely to see even one kiss on the cheek—much less three—between male friends. The norm differs between cultures.
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 a person as you greet him or her. While the act of showing respect is universal, the means or the particular manner does vary between cultures and can also change over time. Here’s a more dramatic example of the same manner changing over time: In current American culture, women no longer curtsy nor do men bow in greeting as they did in the eighteenth century.
Sometimes, explaining the difference between manners and the principles of etiquette seems like an academic exercise. But here in Dubai, watching my male host greet other men with whom he is clearly friendly, reminded me that in the real world, principles of etiquette like 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.