Basic Principles of International Etiquette

david woodwardThis story comes from experiences of traveling, teaching, and doing business in over 45 countries. The goal is to show the basic idea of international etiquette. That is, how do we behave in various professional, social, and cultural contexts?

There is no way to memorize all the rules of behavior for every international context. The world is far too complex and societies are rapidly changing. There are no established rules that work everywhere. In one situation, it is necessary to discuss religion. And in another situation, religion should be avoided. In one context, we must carefully watch the ranking and status of people in the group. In another, the rule is equality. Thus, international etiquette simply means being polite and thoughtful in public and formal situations. But doing this well is not always easy. It takes practice.

Here are some basic principles:

  • Observe first.
  • Determine the status of people in the group.
  • Follow the lead of those with higher status.
  • Follow others who know the context.
  • Privately ask an advisor for guidance.
  • Speak little when unsure of the situation.
  • Thank and complement others regularly.
  • Avoid expressing opinions at first.
  • Avoid uncomfortable topics.
  • Avoid open confrontation at all costs.
  • Affirm the languages and cultures of others.
  • Smile naturally and frequently.
  • Be genuine.

There is no substitute for experience. Until you have gained experience and confidence about what to do, here is one good strategy. Put yourself in the other person’s position. It is amazing how much we can learn by following this guide. Before acting or speaking, consider what it is like to be in another’s place. That is the beginning of international etiquette.

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