Tommy’s Rules or Respecting Other Cultures

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 I teach cultural issues as part of a business etiquette seminar, I point out that one way of doing something is not superior to another way. Instead, it’s simply different. When entering a different culture, know what the standards are, be ready to reflect standards in your actions where appropriate, and respect those standards as being equally valid as the standards in your own culture.

Cultures aren’t limited just to differences between Eastern and Western cultures or between 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 in the North.

In fact, cultures in a company may vary between different locations. I once taught at a Fortune 100 company in New York City. Employees on the third floor dressed in a business informal manner. Yet, on the twenty-third floor senior management area, the dress was definitely business formal. I remember asking the employees on the third floor if they were prepared to be appropriately dressed if called upon to visit the twenty-third floor at a moment’s notice.


I became aware that cultures can be as unique as individual families when a seventh grader visiting Emily Post asked, “My bedtime is 11:00PM. Sometimes I go to my friend Tommy’s house to spend the night. His bedtime is 10:00PM. Why do I have to go to bed at Tommy’s bedtime?” I responded, “Great question. When you’re in Tommy’s house, you play by Tommy’s rules.”

Underlying the admonition about playing by Tommy’s rules is the idea that when you enter anyone’s culture—a different location of your company, a client’s offices, a location in a different region of your country, or a different country altogether—know the norms of the culture you’re entering and show respect for those norms. Understand that they reflect being considerate and respectful even if they are different from the way you express those values in your home culture. In some cases you may even want to adjust your actions to respect the culture you are visiting. 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 it and read it. It’s one way I can show respect for the culture I am visiting

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.


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