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
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.