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Understanding Culture

A seventh grade boy taught me about the importance of understanding culture. The seventh grade class from a local middle school just down the street from The Emily Post Institute came for a visit to learn about etiquette. We toured our offices, gave them a brief talk about consideration, respect, and honesty, and how important it is to remember that choosing how you do something matters to your success in building friendships and relationships. And then we asked if there were any questions.

Kids will ask anything, and that’s what I enjoy about talking to them. Hands shot up. I signaled to one boy, I’ll call him John, to ask his question.

“I have a friend, Tommy,” he began. “Sometimes we have sleep-overs. When I go to Tommy’s house to spend the night, we have to go to bed at ten o’clock because that’s Tommy’s bedtime. My bedtime at home is eleven o’clock. When I spend the night at Tommy’s, why can’t we stay up until eleven o’clock?”

“Great question, John, thank you” I replied. I went on to explain that in Tommy’s house, it was important to play by Tommy’s family’s rules. And the same is true when Tommy visits you: He respects your house rules. And that, in a nutshell, is at the heart of understanding how to interact with different cultures.

Cultures come in many forms and each has different norms. For instance, countries can represent different cultures. Between those cultures there are sure to be different ways of doing things. Something as simple as a greeting varies between the culture of the United States and Japanese culture. In the United States, a handshake is the expected norm while in Japan, bowing is a standard form of greeting. While the specifics differ, the underlying concept behind the norm is universal: showing respect as you greet another person.

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Cultures also come in many different forms beyond the obvious country-to-country ones. You can have cultural differences between:

• Regions in a country. Think about the difference between the manners and expectations of the south and the northeast in the United States.

• Companies. The dress code at a financial services firm on Wall Street may be business formal while the dress code of a dot com in Silicon Valley is more likely to be casual.

• Offices in the same company. Think about a company with an office in Seattle and an office in Dubai.

• Areas within the same office location. I once presented to staff on the third floor of a company where dress was business casual. I asked what they would wear if they worked in the corporate offices located on the twenty-third floor. Answer: business formal.

You will build stronger, better, more positive relationships by making an effort to learn not just about the place but also about the culture you will be visiting and then show respect by reflecting the norms of that culture in your actions.

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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