Navigating Customs of Formality

Formality/informality and cultural self-awareness

As you’ve probably experienced, it’s very easy to offend someone from another culture simply because you were unaware of a custom in their culture around politeness or formality.

Or maybe you have been offended by someone from another culture because they were unaware of a custom around politeness or formality in your culture.

In both cases, the error was an innocent one: you didn’t mean to offend the other person, and they didn’t mean to offend you.

Unfortunately, even a single innocent offence can make it more difficult to establish trust in a business relationship.

However, you can prevent potential damage to a relationship by learning to recognise your own cultural programming so that when someone from a different culture behaves in a way that seems disrespectful or excessively formal to you, you can recognise that it’s cultural, not personal. 

To discover some of your own cultural programming around politeness, note your responses to the following situations. Circle the response that matches your first, instinctive reaction, before you think about it. This instinctive reaction is the clue to your cultural programming.

  1. A new colleague arrives at work on his first day wearing jeans, T-shirt and flip-flops: too formal | too informal | just right
  2. You hand your business card to a new acquaintance at a networking event and she puts it in her purse without looking at it: too formal | too informal | just right
  3. One of your direct reports emails your superior with some criticism about your team’s project: too formal | too informal | just right
  4. At an afternoon party of families in your street, the host uses expensive china and crystal glasses: too formal | too informal | just right
  5. You enter the room for an internal department meeting and everyone stops talking and stands up: too formal | too informal | just right

Look at your responses and then consider how you would react in each of those situations. Each of these situations is “just right” in one or more cultures.

Now take this exercise into your everyday life, and notice how you react in situations where formality plays a role. This will help you to become more familiar with your own expectations around formality and politeness.

The more aware you are of your own expectations, the more control you will have over your automatic reactions when someone doesn’t behave as you expect.

When you are able to control your automatic reactions in cross-cultural situations, you will more easily establish trust and grow strong relationships with colleagues and clients from other cultures.

Remember that in cross-cultural situations, the other person’s behavior is usually not personal … it’s cultural.

 

(We can help you develop this cultural self-awareness: drop us an email to learn how.)

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