Adequate Data: Small Social Rules

These are some of the things to watch for when trying to honor others’ culture.

Avoid overstepping small things that may make people uncomfortable:
  • Speak about others as if they are always in the room with you.
  • Avoid flirting or lewd remarks.
  • Liberally use kind words:
    • “Please, thank you, you’re welcome”
    • “I’m sorry, my apologies, excuse me”
    • Avoid the word “but”, since people don’t hear anything said before it.
    • Thank people more than once for a quality experience: first when finished with it and again the next day in a thank-you note.
  • Avoid offensive remarks, insults or slang.
  • Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.
  • Take extra time before you speak, and be quick to apologize.
  • Honor cultural norms, particularly with timeliness, when to speak, and where to position yourself.
  • Listen to music quietly to not disrupt anyone else.
  • If you’re a male and not in a men’s restroom, leave the toilet seat down when you’re finished.
  • Return shopping carts to their designated areas.
  • Respond promptly to communications, especially when the other person may have hurt feelings from a delay.
  • When you’ll be around others, make lunch choices that don’t emit odors.
  • Keep your environment organized enough to not distract others.
  • Clean up messes you make in common areas.
  • Notify others when supplies run low.
  • Use others’ time and resources respectfully.
  • Quickly inform people of anything that may be important to them.
  • Graciously accept compliments and sympathy instead of self-invalidating (which implies they’re wrong).
  • When accepting correction, say “you’re right” instead of “I know”.
  • Avoid giving information to someone that may hurt a third person or their reputation.
  • While your instinct may be to share in criticizing someone else, it will needlessly hurt their reputation.

Avoid obscene gestures:
  • Holding up a middle finger is a nearly universal obscene gesture.
  • Most obscene gestures either involve pointing at an object or using body language that implies lewd actions.
    • Pointing can range from using a thumb to an index finger to the entire hand.
    • Showing the bottom of your foot is seen as rude in many countries.
    • Using your left hand for anything that isn’t the bathroom can be seen as offensive.
  • Some cultures regard someone’s head as sacred enough that it’s taboo to touch or pass anything over it.

Avoid body language tics that may annoy others:
  • Singing or humming to self
  • Loudly coughing, sneezing, sighing, yawning or not covering your mouth with any of them
  • Cracking knuckles or any other joints
  • Talking while yawning
  • Fidgeting or shifting weight, shaking a body part, tapping feet or fingers
  • Making faces by:
    • Puffing up your cheeks
    • Sticking out your tongue
    • Pouting
    • Biting your lips
    • Keeping your mouth too open or closed
  • Rubbing your hands or face
  • Stomach rumbling (push the stomach as far out as possible to stop it)
  • An inappropriate erection (flex a muscle for 60 seconds to stop it)

Avoid body language cues that imply rejection:
  • Crossed arms or legs
  • Facing/leaning away from the person
  • Turning your back to the person
  • Reading, using a mobile device or performing a task while talking
  • Any gestures which implies you disagree with someone

Avoid looking uninterested:
  • Implying you don’t want to talk at that moment
  • Not maintaining eye contact, avoiding direct eye contact or looking around the room
  • Rolling eyes, lifting eyebrows or smirking
  • Staring without a change of expression
  • Falling asleep while the other person is speaking
  • Not focusing on the speaker’s words or ideas
    • Saying or asking generic responses
    • Pretending to understand, then asking for clarification on what they had just stated
  • Looking tense, distracted, or upset

Don’t let yourself get distracted:
  • Talking about something that seems unrelated to the subject
  • Shifting the conversation off the speaker without their implied permission

Don’t cross physical boundaries or give too much space:
  • Sometimes your body language will communicate arrogance or that you’re invading their personal space
  • Standing so close that you spit on them when speaking
  • Looking over someone’s shoulder as they are working, reading, or using a mobile device
  • Standing far away as if you’re trying to avoid closeness
  • Openly removing something from someone else’s clothing or body
    • Remove the item subtly to prevent their feeling you’re invading their privacy

Don’t invalidate others or their views:
  • Giving unsolicited advice or instructions
    • Ask for their permission first if you must give advice, then be brief
  • Saying “I know” instead of “you’re right”
  • Insulting people for physical ailments
  • Speaking or laughing while others are talking
  • Saying “you’re wrong” or any variation of it
  • Comparing your achievements to others’
  • Complimenting, but including a request

Apologize correctly when you fail:
  • Apologize quickly, as soon as you know you’ve hurt someone.
  • Be very specific about what you did wrong.
  • Sincerely express remorse, without excuses.

Don’t disrespect who you’re talking to:
  • Interrupting them before they feel they’ve stated their point
  • Speaking more often than they are
  • Doing anything that can create awkwardness, embarrassment or shame
  • Leaning on someone
  • Excessively flattering someone or flirting
  • Connecting with professional contacts on a personal social network

Don’t disrespect others around you:
  • Not respecting others with your voice, conduct or words
  • Not making room for the newest addition to a group
  • Shaking a table someone else is using
  • Expressing desire to harm or injure others, or showing pleasure at others’ misfortune
  • Speaking lightly about more profound social, religious, philosophical or cultural matters
  • Making fun of anyone else, their situations, or anything relevant to others’ personal lives
  • Calling people names, using hurtful words, or swearing
  • Asking for more information about others who aren’t in the conversation
  • Throwing trash on the ground
  • Laughing too loudly or too much at comedy or at inappropriate times (exhale as much air as possible to suppress laughter)
  • Believing or delivering news with a strong bias, no discretion, or without proof
    • Sharing rumors and indicating who said what to whom
  • Sitting down when others have to stand up, especially older or more respected people
  • Not holding the door for others
  • Staring at anyone for more than a few seconds, especially when they have a unique physical feature
  • Depending on the culture, making small talk with a stranger or not striking up a conversation
  • Some cultures expect you to wait in a line, but others don’t
    • If there is a line, don’t cut into it or save spots

Don’t respond too briefly or too broadly:
  • Saying things more bluntly than the situation calls for or that people are comfortable with
  • Giving an indirect answer to a direct question
  • Giving long-winded or complicated responses that break the natural flow of conversation
  • Speaking to a superior without being asked a question or providing too many details in their presence
  • Confusing the listener by talking in a roundabout way

Don’t wrongly interpret others’ behaviors:
  • Overreaching by attaching meanings far beyond what the speaker intended
  • Underreaching by missing their intended idea because it doesn’t agree with your views
  • Passing judgment without having what the speaker sees as all the relevant information
  • Continuing to walk when others stop walking
  • Not honoring the time and place for fun, business or work

Don’t draw public attention to yourself:
  • Walking too fast, running or walking too slowly
  • Tiptoeing or dancing while walking, even with cultures which find dancing acceptable
  • Speaking loudly or doing things that others find loud
  • Getting drunk
  • Showing outrage or anger
  • Taking any clothes off or not taking clothes off when everyone else has
  • Wearing casual clothing or clothing that exposes too much skin
  • Wearing torn or dirty clothing
  • Depending on the culture, wearing covered clothing on a hot day
  • Some cultures expect routine public hugging and kissing while others only consider physical touch appropriate with sex
  • For some cultures, chewing gum in public

Mind your physical position compared to your social position:
  • It’s sometimes offensive to sit while someone else is standing.
  • Depending on the culture, having your head higher than a leader’s
  • In some cultures, poor people shouldn’t be physically close to wealthy people

Don’t smile inappropriately:
  • In some cultures (like Russia), smiling without an apparent reason
  • In some cultures (like Japan), laughing with teeth showing

Watch where you keep your hands:
  • Don’t put your hands near your privates
  • Stretching or yawning is sometimes seen as rude
  • Don’t scratch yourself, or make it subtle if you do
  • Putting your hands in your pockets might be rude

Honor gender differences:
  • Men sometimes shouldn’t shake hands with women
  • Men often shouldn’t discuss female-only topics such as their hygiene practices or children (if he wants to know, he can ask if she has any children)
  • Men should usually hold the door for women and walk closer to the street

Respect professionals’ specializations:
  • Don’t give professional advice unless you work in that field.
  • Unless you’re a doctor, diagnosing someone’s ailment is rude.
  • If you know trade-specific words, only use them if you’re 100% sure what they fully mean.

Honor higher-ranking and higher-status people:
  • Always treat people with legitimate authority (e.g., police, judge) as higher-rank.
  • Very high-ranking people usually require a specific formal greeting.
  • Clear the path for anyone from a higher status, especially in small passageways.
  • The most prominent in status should often walk a little ahead than the others either in the middle, on the right side, or closest to the wall.
  • Never stare at anyone of a higher rank.
  • Disagree politely and humbly with someone of a higher rank.
  • Never steer the conversation with a superior.
  • Don’t talk to an educated person about inane or useless things.
  • Younger people are sometimes not allowed to act casually around their elders.
  • If you’re among peers or elders, you probably won’t be honored first, and seeking honor is usually rude.
  • Lower status people often shouldn’t accept the hospitality of a higher status person, and the higher status person shouldn’t insist if they refuse.

Consider everyone else’s punctuality:
  • Some nations’ schedules (including public services) never run on time, but others expect everyone arrives early

Honor financial rituals:
  • Each nation has their own process and order of buying and selling:
    • Some countries only take their local currency while others prefer bank cards.
  • Depending on the culture, they prefer that you will bargain/haggle or that you should take their offered price.

Honor gift-giving rules:
  • Giving:
    • Many countries expect you to bring a gift if you visit their home.
    • Some items are seen as unlucky or used for an unpleasant purpose (like for funerals).
    • Since they may see it as a bribe, avoid giving an expensive gift.
    • Some gifts imply a far more romantic gesture than you may intend, such as flowers or candy.
  • Receiving:
    • It’s usually rude to reject a gift or offer for something, even if you don’t want it.
    • Some cultures see immediately accepting a gift as greedy, and they’ll expect you to decline an offer for food or a gift several times before you accept.
    • Sometimes you should open a gift immediately, but sometimes later.
    • Sometimes people expect you to receive gifts with both hands.
    • Some cultures view business cards as gifts, while others see it as casually sharing information.

Avoid dining taboos:
  • Pay close attention to everyone else, from which plate they eat from to which utensils they use
  • Don’t do something else while eating
    • Writing or using a mobile device
    • Spitting, coughing or blowing your nose
    • Making noises like burping or slurping while dining
  • Don’t put elbows on the table or hands under the table
    • As a general rule, rest only your hands on top of the table
  • Incorrect drinking
    • Drinking too slow or fast
    • Not wiping your lips before and after drinking
    • Looking around while drinking
  • Incorrect eating
    • Not taking food you touched
    • Digging through food to find something in particular
    • Blowing on food to cool it down
    • Eating too fast or slow
    • Taking bites before swallowing a previous bite
    • Biting off pieces you can’t chew with your mouth closed
    • Chewing with your mouth open or talking with anything in your mouth
    • Dumping sauce over the food instead of using it as you eat each bite
    • Spitting out food or throwing it under the table
    • Eating the last piece when the host didn’t offer it to you
  • Not wiping your face when you’ve finished eating
    • Using a sleeve or arm to wipe your face instead of a napkin
  • Not excusing yourself from the table when you get up
  • As a general rule, the head of a household should eat slowest for others to enjoy eating

Watch for culture-specific dining taboos:
  • Some countries reserve a special place at the table for each person while others don’t care.
    • One end of the table is usually the “head” and reserved for either the host or the guest.
  • Sometimes the guest should be the first to start eating.
  • Some cultures consider silence when dining as rude.
  • Specific ways to eat certain foods are taboo (e.g., cutting noodles or salad leaves, pulling celery fibers off).
  • While some cultures consider using hands as uncivilized, others see a fork and knife as arrogant.
  • Many cultures with finger foods frequently use a napkin as they eat.
  • Eating utensils usually have appropriate methods for holding.
  • The host may serve food on a communal plate and in a communal cup or might provide designated plates and cups for each person.
    • Some cultures only use a fork to transfer food from the communal to the individual plate.
    • If the culture has individual plates, don’t double-dip a food item in a communal bowl.
  • It may be inappropriate to lick the knife or use it again without cleaning it.
  • Don’t point with chopsticks or stab food with it.
    • Sometimes rubbing chopsticks together is seen as bad luck.
  • Sometimes, finishing your food implies you didn’t get enough, but other times not finishing your food suggests you didn’t like it.
  • Most cultures limit conversation topics to small talk.
  • During a toast, it might be taboo about how high you raise your glass compared to everyone else or through hitting glasses with others.
  • Sometimes the oldest male is the first to eat, or the meal might end when the host stands up.
  • Asking for seasoning or adding it to food might be an egregious insult to the cook.
  • Adding anything to some alcoholic drinks may be considered offensive.

Honor restaurant traditions:
  • If someone offers to pay for a meal but doesn’t clarify the price range, ask their recommendation.
  • The kindness of food service workers are more a formality than genuine hospitality.
  • Ordering the chef’s favorite dish might be a good idea, but mind the ingredients in it.
  • Since the workers want to leave and go home, don’t visit a restaurant 15 minutes before they close.
  • Pay the bill at a restaurant can be complicated:
    • If offering the bill is seen as rude, the restaurant will wait for you to ask for it.
    • Some cultures believe the one who invited the other person should pay the entire bill.
    • Some cultures find splitting a bill inappropriate.

Tipping is a bizarre, complicated ritual:
  • Most parts of the world like tipping, but some countries don’t do it, and a few may even be offended.
  • If the server is flirting with you, they usually want a tip.
  • Since the server’s job is customer service, don’t tip from how long the food took to come.
  • If you must express sincere offense at the restaurant, tip one penny to indicate you didn’t forget.
  • Most services such as handling luggage, checking into a hotel, ordering pizza or ordering takeout might expect a tip.
    • Mechanics, delivery workers, custodians, and cleaning services may expect tips.
    • If you stand listening to someone playing music on the street, you owe them a dollar for a tip.

Honor bathroom etiquette:
  • Learn which facilities you’re supposed to use.
    • Some basins are for ritual hand washing, not peeing.
    • Observe gender constraints:
      • Don’t go to the opposite gender room.
      • While family or unisex bathrooms are often for parents with babies, they’re acceptable for an emergency.
  • Don’t bring food or drink in with you.
    • If you’re leaving a drink at your table, put a drink coaster on top of it.
  • Respect others in the bathroom:
    • Make way for anyone with an emergency.
    • Men shouldn’t make eye contact with others in the bathroom.
    • Men should leave as much space as possible when using a urinal.
    • Men shouldn’t take phone calls while in the bathroom.
    • Women should greet other women at the sink.
  • Always close and latch the door.
  • Avoid making noises in a bathroom stall:
    • Lift yourself up off the toilet a little bit to make less noise.
    • Put toilet paper in the toilet to prevent loud splashing.
  • Clean up after yourself:
    • Flush after you’re finished.
    • Don’t wipe makeup on the towels.
    • Don’t leave wet towels on the floor.
    • Don’t leave an empty toilet paper roll.
  • Men shouldn’t leave the seat up if both genders use that toilet.
  • Always wash your hands when leaving.
  • Don’t waste time in the bathroom.

Honor the culture of others’ homes:
  • Some cultures expect you to visit their home, but others find it offensive.
    • A few cultures expect you to invite yourself to their home.
  • While it’s offensive in some countries to be late, showing up on time is offensive in others.
    • If you must be late and shouldn’t be, only bring in coffee or food if you have enough for everyone.
    • People will politely express annoyance at your lateness if they tease you about it.
  • Some people treat their home like you live there and can serve yourself, but others believe a host must stay perpetually involved in serving their guests.
  • Some cultures show off their bedroom, but others prefer that guests never leave the common area.
  • Touching things in other peoples’ homes might be off-limits.
  • Most cultures see bringing along uninvited friends as impolite.
  • Don’t show excessive gratitude if the host feeds you routinely.
  • Some cultures expect you to take your shoes off when entering, but others prefer you keep them on.
  • Some cultures expect you to share alcohol you brought with everyone else, but others consider it taboo.

Observe religious customs:
  • Though you may not have to practice their customs, some things like slang or not respecting elders are highly offensive.
  • Images of Hindu gods are considered sacred.
  • Pork, smoking, and alcohol are taboo in Muslim countries.

Some numbers are considered bad luck:
  • 13 is unlucky in the USA.
  • Four is unlucky in China.
  • An even number is unlucky in Russia.

If you’re invited to a wedding you can’t afford:
  • Getting invited to a wedding may incur some significant expenses:
    • Gifts from their registry
    • Valet parking
    • Drinks, if the wedding has alcohol
    • If it’s a formal wedding, a formal outfit
    • If you’re part of the wedding party, a matching outfit
  • You can still miss a wedding and be friends with the bride and groom.
    • Be honest with them if you can’t afford to go.
    • Let them know as soon as possible.
    • Don’t blame their wedding choices or imply you’re a victim.
    • Offer something else, like helping to plan or dinner after the honeymoon.

There are many customs specific to each culture:
  • Small tasks might not be allowed, from taking photographs to the number of items you give, and some of them are even against the law.
  • Sitting in the front or back of a taxi varies by region.
  • While driving, honking your horn in many places is considered inappropriate unless it’s an emergency.
  • Sometimes talking and yelling during a movie is considered appropriate, and other times it’s offensive.
  • Sitting in a chair in a group event can be rude if someone else claimed it, even if you weren’t aware.

If you want to learn more about people skills, check out this guide.