Coexistence 103: The Unspoken Rules Of Society

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Coexistence 102: Making Conversations

Social standards help people coexist

Following culturally accepted rules of society creates a neutral zone for everyone to feel safe together

  • Honoring broader social standards shows that you can respect individual boundaries

Learning cultures is more important than learning languages

  • Understanding how other societies think is more important than their languages
  • Technology provides the correct words to say but can’t provide appropriate context

The severity of disrespecting social rules varies significantly

Folkways – everyday behavior created out of convenience and tradition (e.g., holding the door for people)

  • e.g., holding the door for others or saying “excuse me” when bumping others
  • Violating folkways gives odd stares, quiet shunning, and labels you as an outsider

Mores – behaviors regarded as offensive to dishonor, usually based on moral values

  • Violating mores will create open rejection and a tarnished reputation in many groups
  • Enough broken mores will drive you out of a group
  • Some people even view many folkways as mores

Laws – behaviors considered universally bad by the majority to justify an official agency enforces it

  • Breaking laws can lead to public shaming, prison, deportation or death
  • Embassies are designed to navigate legal differences between regions

If you’re careful, you can often break some social rules without any lasting harm

  • People often overlook a rude action if you’re staying tactful and polite
  • Quickly apologize for a habit that breaks someone else’s rule
  • If you can convey your sense of humor, others often overlook perceived rudeness
  • If you have authority over anyone, however, avoid breaking the rules and risk setting a poor example

Research any new culture you engage with

Our modern information society provides plenty of advice on how to behave

  • Search the internet for advice
  • Ask friends familiar with the culture
  • Sometimes, asking strangers about appropriate behavior is a taboo itself

Imitate others when you don’t know what to do

  • Match the body language, volume, and posture of others in that group with a similar stature

Politeness can maintain many relationships

  • Only speak a language others likely know
  • Avoid slang or improper grammar
  • Speak about everything with a degree of respect
  • As a general rule, give honor to anyone older or more educated than you

People are sometimes vaguely aware of your customs when you visit them

  • If you honor a country’s customs but the locals insist on the way you’re familiar with, let them honor your customs
  • If they instruct you about their methods, oblige and graciously thank them

Cultures are highly relative and tend to separate across a few intuitive boundaries


  • Most settings come from how people use the location or the benefits and challenges of the natural environment
  • Sometimes a culture will vary wildly at the same locale at different times of the day or week


  • Most regions draw influence from surrounding areas
  • Almost every social norm has an opposite version somewhere else in the world
  • Many transients are part of a separate subculture (e.g., nomadic Gypsies, truck drivers, hobos)


  • Generation differences can vary significantly based on what that generation grew up with
  • The more technological change between generations, the more significant a generational culture change
    • As technology increases, people become less private and more educated
    • A more educated society makes ideas and actions happen faster and therefore speeds up everyone’s time management

Learn where a culture’s dimensions sit compared to yours

Conflict Style – method of managing disagreements

Confrontational cultures value directly addressing problems

  • They see Conflict Avoidance as irresponsible or evading an issue

Conflict Avoidance cultures don’t confront directly as much as possible

  • They see Confrontational as crossing boundaries and as an unwillingness to harmoniously coexist

Context Level – how much meaning they attribute to secondary elements of communication

Low Context cultures value explicit and direct communication

  • They see High Context as not getting to the point

High Context cultures always want ideas implied but never stated

  • They see Low Context as rude and insensitive to others’ feelings

Feedback Approach – how much they permit negative input

Direct Feedback cultures embrace and value blunt negative input

  • They see Indirect Feedback as annoyingly vague

Indirect Feedback cultures desire a subtle expression of negative feedback

  • They see Direct Feedback as thoughtless and insensitive to each person’s individuality

Individualistic vs. Collectivist – views about the larger identified group

Individualistic cultures value autonomy and independence as necessary for society to function

  • They see Collectivist thinking as irrational and overly idealistic

Collectivist cultures believe decisions that benefit the community help society overall

  • They see Individualistic thinking as inharmonious and selfish

Linear-Time vs. Flexible-Time – approach to time constraints

Linear-Time cultures value timeliness and fulfilling every deadline

  • They see Flexible-Time thinkers as lazy and unreliable

Flexible-Time considers time management as necessary but universally unimportant

  • They see Linear-Time thinkers as obsessive and inflexible to change

Power Distance – distance interpreted between high and low-rank members

High Power Distance cultures usually honor a hierarchy

  • They see Low Power Distance cultures as dishonoring unspoken rules as they travel up and down the chain of command

Low Power Distance cultures view everyone as fully equal

  • To subordinate or exert control in a High Power Distance culture confuses superiors and offends subordinates

Principles vs. Applications – method of thinking

Principles-First cultures need reasoning based on philosophical concepts or abstract ideas

  • They see Applications-First thinking as having no basis for the idea

Applications-First cultures need reasoning with examples and applicable techniques

  • They see Principles-First thinking as disconnected from the real world

Task-Based vs. Relationship-Based – approach to working

Task-Based cultures separate career and personal relationships

  • They see Relationship-Based cultures as unproductive and distracted from work

Relationship-Based cultures see personal connections as more important than business or work

  • They see Task-Based cultures as workaholics or obsessive

Top-Down vs. Consensual – attitude about authority

Top-Down cultures expect employers and authority figures to tell everyone else what to do

  • They see subordinates from Consensual cultures as unruly and non-compliant

Consensual cultures expect subordinates to advise authority figures on what to do

  • They see superiors from Top-Down cultures as inept and worth hating

Uncertainty Avoidance – the tendency to seek out certainty

Low Uncertainty Avoidance is content with uncertainty through seeing it as necessary most of the time

  • They see High Uncertainty Avoidance as self-sabotaging and overly anxious

High Uncertainty Avoidance looks at uncertainty as a risk and always seeks for clarification

  • They see Low Uncertainty Avoidance as apathetic or lazy

Wherever you go, observe the dress code

Generally, dress at or above those around you

1. White Tie is the highest level of sophistication in clothing selection

the outfit should be the finest you can afford

Men should have a full dress outfit with a bow tie, a tailcoat, and a waistcoat

Women should wear long, elegant evening gowns with a matching set of gloves

2. Black Tie is most common for weddings, funerals, and other important occasions

Men should wear a tuxedo jacket with a bow tie and leather shoes

Women should wear a long evening gown or cocktail dress with dark, conservative colors

Creative Black Tie is as formal as Black Tie but not as strict and allows less conservative cuts or brighter colors

3. Business is common for professionals

Business is similar to Black Tie with more gray tones

Men should wear a matching two-piece suit with a tie

Women should wear a skirt in a neutral color with a solid-colored matching blouse or professional top

  1. Black Tie Optional or Formal Attire expects conservative and sophisticated clothing

Men can wear the same as Business, but the tie is optional

Women can wear a long dress, pantsuit or cocktail dress in darker or neutral colors

5. Semi-Formal is similar to Black Tie Optional but doesn’t expect a proper evening gown

Men can wear a two-piece suit with an optional jacket

Women can wear a cocktail-style black dress with dress shoes or a long skirt with an appropriate formal top

6. Cocktail or Smart Casual doesn’t expect sophisticated attire

Cocktail/Smart Casual encourages a tasteful outfit

Men can wear a casual shirt with a smart jacket and chinos

Women can wear a knee-length skirt, dress pants or a blouse

Festive usually themes after a holiday, so look for a colored outfit that matches the style

7. Casual has a few dress standards

Men can wear a polo and casual trousers with deck shoes

Women can wear almost anything that looks nice

8. Informal almost looks like working clothes

T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers

Shorts and a tank top

Watch for how much skin you’re revealing relative to the culture

Always smell and look clean

Learn to stay hygienic and look healthy

Avoid or hide specific body functions

  • Don’t breathe loudly
  • Don’t fart or excuse yourself if you must
  • Cover your mouth if you must burp, though some countries encourage burping while eating
  • Sometimes blowing your nose, spitting or picking your teeth is repulsive
  • Many developed countries take offensive at picking lice, ticks, and fleas
  • Don’t chew nails in public

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

Avoid small behaviors that imply you don’t care about others

Some people find body language tics annoying

  • Singing or humming to self
  • Loudly coughing, sneezing, sighing, yawning or not covering your mouth for 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 like puffing up your cheeks, sticking out your tongue, pouting, biting your lips or 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 from rumbling
  • An inappropriate erection
    • Flex a muscle for 60 seconds to end an unwanted erection

Avoid “closed-off” body language cues

  • Crossed arms or legs
  • Facing/leaning away from the person
  • Turning your back to the person
  • Reading, using a mobile device or doing something else when talking
  • Any changes in body language that tell the other person you disagree with them

Try not to look disinterested

  • Indicating that 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 their words and ideas
    • Saying or asking generic responses
    • Pretending you understand, then asking for clarification on what they had just stated
  • Looking tense, distracted or upset
    • People can usually tell if you don’t want to listen to them

Don’t take the focus off of others without permission

  • Interrupting them before they feel they’ve stated their point
  • Speaking more often than they are
  • Talking about something that seems unrelated to what they were speaking on
  • Shifting from a passive role in a conversation to take the focus off them

Don’t cross physical boundaries or give too much physical space

  • Sometimes your natural body language will make people feel you’re arrogant 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 being close to them
  • 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

  • Giving unsolicited advice or instructions
    • Ask for their permission first if you must give advice, and 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’

Don’t disrespect the person you’re talking to

  • 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 who aren’t in the conversation

  • Not respecting others around you with your voice, conduct or words
  • Not making room for the newest addition to a group
  • Shaking a table someone else is using
  • Expressing desires 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 uninvolved 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 at inappropriate times
  • Believing or delivering news with a strong bias, no discretion or without proof
    • Sharing rumors and indicating who said what to whom

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 meant
  • 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
  • Being unaware of the time and place for fun, business or work

Each region has its rules for proper public behavior

Some nations’ public services and schedules don’t always run on time, and they see showing impatience as rude

  • In other cultures, you’re behaving rudely by not adhering to a schedule

Learn about anything a specific culture might see as taboo

Doing anything that draws public attention to yourself

  • Walking too fast, running or walking too slowly
  • Tiptoeing or dancing while walking, even when some cultures find dancing very acceptable
  • Being 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
  • Wearing covered clothing on a hot day
  • Some cultures expect routine public hugging and kissing while others consider physical touch impermissible outside of sex

Sitting down when others have to stand up, especially older or more respected people

Smiling without an apparent reason

  • Laughing with teeth showing

Chewing gum

Not holding the door for others

Putting your hands in your pockets

Staring at anyone for more than a few seconds, even if they have something visibly wrong with them

Making small talk with a stranger or not striking up a conversation

Trying to bargain or haggle or not bargaining or haggling

Some nations expect you to wait in a line, but others don’t respect a queue

  • If there is a queue, it’s often rude to cut into it or save spots

Some countries only take their local cash while others prefer bank cards

  • The process and order of buying and selling varies in each country

A culture’s specific conversation norms can vary

Some topics are inappropriate in some cultures

  • If something is typical in a region, be careful how you comment on it
  • Intimate details about your love life or sex life
  • Salary, money details or that you’re looking for work
  • How much alcohol you drink or if you do drink
  • Political and religious views
  • Personal medical details like afflictions and diseases
  • Gossip and negative comments about others
  • Inappropriate jokes
    • A country’s view of proper context makes some jokes off-limits
    • Cultures that take most things seriously will find any jokes offensive
    • At the same time, cultures that make light of most things find responses without humor rude
  • Some cultures consider obesity a sign of health while others believe it’s shameful

Some cultures see any non-disclosure of a personal opinion or personal life as withdrawn and rude

Greeting people

Sometimes greeting with a handshake crosses boundaries, but other cultures may expect hugging and kissing

Calling someone by their first name without their proper title might be rude

  • Other cultures consider calling someone by a proper title instead of their first name pretentious

Rise to greet someone if you’re sitting, even when they are in a lower position in society than you

A hurried greeting with others is often as offensive as not greeting them at all

Observe your environment as you speak

The volume you speak might be offensively high and threatening or offensively low where they can’t hear you

  • As a general rule, match the volume of the group or your listener

Compare your age and gender to the other person

Men are sometimes not allowed to shake hands with women

Men aren’t often allowed to talk about female-only topics, especially children

  • If a man wants to know if a woman is pregnant, he should ask if she has any children

Younger people are sometimes not allowed to act casually around older ones

Speak honorably to everyone concerning their status

Respect professionals in their subject of expertise

  • Unless you’re a doctor, you’re behaving rudely by diagnosing someone’s ailment if they tell you they’re sick

Honor any unspoken rules with superiors and high-status people

  • Always look at people with legitimate authority (e.g., police, judge) as a superior
  • Very high-ranking people usually require a specific formalized 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 high-ranking people
  • Disagree politely and humbly with a superior
  • Never steer the conversation with a superior
  • Don’t talk to an educated person about inane or useless things

Respect anyone from a lower status than you

  • Don’t talk about philosophical ideas, politics or unconventional knowledge around less educated people
  • Make your choice of words plain and straightforward

Watch your physical position compared with others

  • It’s sometimes offensive to sit while the person is standing
  • Having your head higher than a leader’s is offensive in some countries
  • A few nations expect you to stand while a leader is sitting
  • More impoverished people are sometimes not allowed to be physically close to wealthier people

If you’re among peers, you probably won’t be honored first, but 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

Some nations treat the head as sacred and to touch it or pass anything over it is taboo

Giving gifts varies across cultures


Many countries expect you to bring a gift if you visit their home

Some gifts are taboo to give

  • Some items are seen as unlucky or used for an unpleasant purpose (like for funerals)
  • Avoid giving a valuable gift, since they may see it as a bribe

Some gifts imply a much more romantic gesture than you may intend


Sometimes it’s 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

  • Some cultures expect you to decline an offer for food or a gift several times before you accept, but others only offer once

Sometimes you should open a gift immediately and sometimes you should open it later

Sometimes gifts should only be received with both hands

Some cultures view business cards as types of gifts and others as casually sharing information

Every culture has its own rules on eating

Pay close attention to everyone else, from which plate they eat from to which utensils they use

Many cultures limit conversation at the dinner table to non-confrontational topics that avoid emotional outbursts

One end is usually the “head” of the table and reserved for either the host or the guest

Some countries reserve a special place at the table for eating while others don’t care

  • Always take the food you touch
  • If the culture has individual plates, don’t double-dip a food item in a communal bowl

During a toast, it might be taboo about how high you raise your glass compared to everyone else or through hitting glasses with others

The host may serve food on a communal plate and in a communal cup or might provide designated plates and cups for each person

Sometimes the oldest male is the first to eat, or the meal might end when the host stands up

  • As a general rule, the head of a household should eat slowest to allow others to enjoy eating
  • Sometimes the guest should be the first to start eating

Asking or adding seasoning to food might be an egregious insult to the cook

Adding anything to some alcoholic drinks may be considered offensive

The way you eat your food matters

Doing a non-eating task while eating

  • Writing or using a mobile device
  • Spitting, coughing or blowing your nose

Putting elbows on the table or putting your hands under the table

  • As a general rule, rest only your hands on the table

Drinking too slow or too fast

Not wiping your lips before and after drinking

Looking around while drinking

Digging through food to find something in particular

Blowing on food to cool it down

Eating too fast or eating too 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

Making noises like burping or slurping while eating

  • Some cultures find a lack of noise while eating as rude

Specific ways to eat certain foods are taboo (e.g., cutting noodles, cutting salad leaves)

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

Some countries see using your hands as uncivilized while others see using a fork and knife as arrogant

  • Many cultures with finger foods frequently use a napkin as they eat
  • There are usually appropriate ways to hold eating utensils
  • Some cultures only use a fork for transferring food from the communal to the individual plate
  • 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 and sometimes not finishing your food suggests you didn’t like it

Eating at a restaurant has its own set of social rules

If someone offers to pay for a meal but doesn’t clarify the price range, ask their recommendation

The kindness of anyone who works in food service is usually more a formality than hospitality

Ordering the chef’s favorite dish is a good idea, but be careful what ingredients may be in it

Don’t visit a restaurant 15 minutes before they close, since the workers want to leave and go home

Pay the bill at a restaurant appropriately

  • When a culture sees offering the bill as rude, servers will wait for you to ask for it
  • Some cultures believe the person who invited the other to eat should pay the entire bill
  • Some cultures think splitting a bill is inappropriate

Tipping is a complicated social process

Most places like tipping, but some countries don’t have it as part of their culture, and a few may even be offended

  • Each country has a unique preference on tipping

If the server is flirting with you, they usually want a tip

Don’t tip based on how long the food took to come since the server’s job is only on customer service

If you must express sincere offense at a restaurant, tip one penny to indicate you didn’t forget the tip

Most other services like 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 around someone playing music on the street, you owe them a dollar for a tip

Observe proper bathroom etiquette

Learn which facilities you’re supposed to use

  • Some basins are for ritual hand washing and not urinating
  • Observe gender constraints
    • Don’t go into the opposite gender room
    • Parents with babies have precedence for family or unisex bathrooms, but they are 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 in 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

Wash your hands when leaving

Don’t waste time in the bathroom

Avoid any offensive gestures or swearing

Holding up a middle finger is a nearly universal obscene gesture

Most obscene gestures either involve pointing at an object or using subconscious body language from local culture

  • 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

Many numbers are considered unlucky

  • 13 is unlucky in the USA
  • Four is unlucky in China
  • An even number is unlucky in Russia

Each culture varies the appropriate way to visit someone else’s home

It’s offensive in some countries to be late but showing up on time is offensive to 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 their annoyance at your lateness if they tease you about being late

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 will show off their bedroom, but others prefer that guests never leave the common area

Touching things in other peoples’ homes might be off-limits

Many countries see bringing uninvited friends along as impolite

Don’t show excessive gratitude when the host routinely feeds you

Some cultures expect you to take your shoes off when entering, but others prefer you keep them on

Some cultures expect you to share with the rest of a party’s alcohol if you brought your own but others consider it taboo

Some cultures expect you to visit their home, but others find it offensive

  • A few cultures expect you to invite yourself to their home

You can sometimes cross small but significant boundaries without realizing it

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

Observe the religious customs of the area

  • Though you may not have to practice their customs, some behaviors are highly offensive
  • Images of Hindu gods are considered sacred
  • Pork, smoking, and alcohol are taboo in Muslim countries

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

It’s often rude when someone is publicly speaking to disturb an audience, talk over them, help them or prompt them without permission

  • Make any questions you have about the speech at the end
  • Wait after a class is over to ask a question instead of holding up the class right before it ends

Use social expectations to your benefit

If you need to get somewhere, order pizza delivery to an address and ride with the driver

People assume you’re a professional once you learn the industry’s trade-specific language

Learning a local language isn’t as hard to learn as it seems

  • Even the most experience language professor won’t know every single word in that language
  • You can have a conversation in most languages with only about 1,000 words
Next: Coexistence 104: Tact & Charm