Coexistence 103: The Unspoken Rules Of Society

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Coexistence 102: Making Conversations

Social standards are not bad

  • Civilization and propriety are about following rules
  • With everyone following these rules, it creates a neutral zone where everyone can feel safe in mixed company
    • By respecting the rules, it shows that you can also respect personal rules as people open up to you
  • These rules vary, but following them is absolutely necessary for a group to accept you
  • Education about cultures will take you much farther than learning languages
    • The mentalities of different societies are more important to learn than their languages
    • Technology crosses barriers about the right sentences to use, but it doesn’t change how someone might see you as rude
  • You can often break some of the rules if you tread carefully
    • If you are being tactful and polite in other ways, a rude action will be overlooked
    • Apologizing for a habit from your own culture that breaks someone’s rule can maintain relationships
    • Sometimes if your sense of humor is effective enough, some rude actions can be used for humor
    • For the sake of your subordinates, however, breaking the rules is very dangerous because you give them a negative model

It pays off tremendously to research any new culture before you engage with them

  • The internet is full of information about how to behave
    • Ask people you know that are familiar with the culture as well
    • Sometimes, asking about what is appropriate can be offensive in some cultures
  • Try to imitate others when you don’t know what to do
    • Match the body language, volume and posture of the group you are in
  • Politeness can take you far
    • Only speak a language that others will know
    • Avoid slang or improper grammar
    • Treat everything that is spoken about with a degree of respect
    • As a general rule, give honor to people older than you
  • Many times, other people will be aware of your customs if you are a visitor
    • If you try to honor a country’s customs, but the locals insist on doing things the way you are familiar with, go with it
    • Sometimes they will try to instruct you about their ways, oblige and graciously thank them
  • There are quite a few major dimensions that a culture uses
    • Conflict Style – way to deal with disagreements
      • Confrontational cultures value directly addressing problems
        • Conflict Avoidance is seen as irresponsible or evasive of the issue
      • Conflict Avoidance cultures don’t want to confront things unless they are absolutely necessary
        • Confrontational is seen as crossing boundaries and unwilling to harmoniously coexist
    • Context Level – bluntness vs. roundabout
      • Low Context cultures value explicit and direct communication
        • High Context is seen as not getting to the point
      • High Context cultures want ideas to be implied
        • Low Context is viewed as rude
    • Feedback Approach – how much negative input is permitted
      • Direct Feedback cultures embrace and value blunt negative input
        • Indirect Feedback is seen as annoyingly vague
      • Indirect Feedback cultures want more subtle approaches for negative feedback
        • Direct Feedback is seen as thoughtless and insensitive
    • Individualistic vs. Collectivist – views about the group at large
      • Individualistic cultures view autonomy and independence as important to society
        • Collectivist is seen as irrational and overly idealistic
      • Collectivist cultures believe that decisions which are best for the community are most important to society
        • Individualistic is seen as unharmonious and selfish
    • Linear-Time vs. Flexible-Time – approach to time constraints
      • Linear-Time cultures value being on time and fulfilling all deadlines
        • Flexible-Time is seen as lazy and unreliable
      • Flexible-Time sees time management as necessary in its place, but not important universally
        • Linear-Time is seen as obsessive and inflexible to change
    • Power Distance – distance between high and low rank members
      • High Power Distance cultures usually have a hierarchy
        • Low Power Distance is seen as breaking many unspoken rules when going up and down the chain of command
      • Low Power Distance cultures view everyone as equal
        • High Power Distance subordinating or exerting control is seen as confusing to superiors and offensive to subordinates
    • Principles vs. Applications – way of thinking
      • Principles-First cultures need to be reasoned with based upon philosophical concepts or abstract ideas
        • Applications-First is seen to have no basis for the idea
      • Applications-First cultures have to be reasoned with using examples and applicable techniques
        • Principles-First is interpreted as disconnected from the real world
    • Task-Based vs. Relationship-Based – approach to working
      • Task-Based cultures separate career and personal relationships
        • A Relationship-Based cultural value will be seen as unproductive and distracted from work
      • Relationship-Based cultures view personal connections as being more important than business or work
        • Someone Task-Based will be viewed as workaholic or obsessive
    • Top-Down vs. Consensual – attitude about authority
      • Top-Down cultures expect employers and authority figures to tell everyone else what to do
        • Subordinates of Consensual cultures will be viewed as unruly and non-compliant
      • Consensual cultures expect subordinates ti sometimes tell authority figures what to do
        • Superiors from Top-Down cultures will be seen as inept and worthy of disdain
    • Uncertainty Avoidance – the tendency to seek out certainty
      • Low Uncertainty Avoidance is perfectly content with uncertainty and sees it as necessary in most cases
        • High Uncertainty Avoidance is viewed as self-sabotaging and overly anxious
      • High Uncertainty Avoidance sees uncertainty as a risk and always seeks to find clarification
        • Low Uncertainty Avoidance is seen as apathetic and lazy to take action
  • Though cultures are highly relative, there are several major ways they separate
    • Settings – varies based on the use of the locale (e.g. behavior in a church is different from behavior at a party)
    • Regions – most are remixed hybrids of other regions, but almost every approach has an opposite version somewhere across the world
    • Generations – depending on what a generation grew up with, these can vary drastically
  • The severity of the norms will determine how you are treated for breaking them
    • Folkways – everyday behavior that is followed out of convenience and tradition (e.g. holding the door for people)
      • Breaking enough folkways will give odd stares, some quiet shunning and will label you as an outsider
    • Mores – based on moral values, and therefore seen as offensive to not honor
      • Breaking a few mores will cause direct rejection, a tarnished reputation in that group and sometimes very bad consequences
      • Some people view the actual honoring of folkways to be a more, be more sensitive around them
    • Laws – things that are considered universally bad by so many people that an official agency enforces following it
      • To break these will lead to some of the worst things imaginable and can include public shaming, prison, deportation or death
      • Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid breaking a law, and embassies are established for navigating some of those problems

We all do small things on occasion that show we don’t care about others

  • Small body language tics can be annoying
    • Singing or humming to self
    • Not covering your mouth while coughing, sneezing, sighing, yawning or loudly doing any of them
    • 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
  • Many cues will show others that you don’t care about someone else or what they’re saying
    • Looking “closed off”
      • 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
    • Looking disinterested
      • Indicating that you don’t want to talk at that moment
      • Not maintaining eye contact
      • Rolling eyes, lifting eyebrows or smirking
      • Staring without a change of expression
      • Falling asleep while the other person is speaking
      • Not focusing on the words and ideas they are expressing
        • Asking questions or saying things that are clearly generic responses
        • Pretending you understand, then asking for clarification that shows you weren’t paying attention to them
      • Looking tense, distracted or upset
        • If you really don’t want to listen to someone, they can tell
    • Taking the spotlight from the other person without permission
      • Interrupting them before they feel they’ve effectively stated their point
      • Speaking more often than they are
      • Talking about something that appears unrelated to what the person was talking about
      • Shifting from a passive role in a conversation and taking the focus of the conversation off the other person
    • Crossing physical boundaries or giving too much physical 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
  • Invalidating others
    • Giving advice or instructions that they didn’t ask for or that it’s not your place to give
      • If you must give advice, ask for their permission first, 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 own achievements to others’ achievements
  • Disrespecting who you’re talking to
    • Doing anything that can create awkwardness, embarrass or shame someone
    • Leaning on someone
    • Flattering someone excessively or flirting
  • Disrespecting others who aren’t in the conversation
    • Not respecting other people around you with your voice, conduct or words
    • Not making room for the newest person arriving in a group
    • Shaking a table that someone is using
    • Expressing desires to harm or injure others or showing pleasure at others’ misfortune
    • Speaking lightly about deeper social, religious, philosophical or cultural matters
    • Making fun of anyone else, their situations, or of things that are important to others
    • Calling people names, using hurtful words or swearing
    • Asking for more information about others not in the conversation
    • Throwing trash on the ground
    • Laughing too loudly or too much at comedy or when it’s not called for
    • Believing or delivering news with a strong bias, without discretion or without proof
      • Sharing rumors and indicating who said what to whom
  • Responding too short
    • Saying things more bluntly than the situation calls for or that people are comfortable with
  • Responding too short or too broadly
    • Giving an indirect answer to a direct question
    • Giving long-winded or complex responses that break the natural flow of conversation
    • Speaking without being asked a question or giving too many details in the presence of a superior
    • Talking in a roundabout way about work, business or other things in a way that confuses the other person
  • Interpreting wrongly
    • Overreaching by attaching meanings that go far beyond what the other person meant
    • Underreaching by missing the meaning of what they said because it doesn’t agree with your own view
    • Passing judgment without having what the other person sees as all of the relevant information
    • Continuing to walk when others stops walking
    • Being unaware of the time and place for fun, business or work

Always smell and look clean

  • You don’t need perfume or cologne, but only use enough to give a slight aroma to someone hugging you
  • Remove or hide any body odor with soap, shampoo and deodorant
  • Keep your teeth brushed, and use breath mints for extended time with others
    • Watch your breath if you eat a strong food like garlic or onions
  • Keep your nails clean and short, or keep the polish well-maintained
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Don’t become obsessive about cleaning yourself, however
    • Don’t groom yourself around others
    • Don’t trim your nails or wash your hands around others
    • Don’t clean your teeth or rinse your mouth around others
  • Some cultures require you clean yourself more than you might be accustomed to

Some body functions are rarely allowed

  • Don’t breathe loudly
  • Don’t fart, or excuse yourself if you need to
  • If you need to burp, cover your mouth, though when eating this is sometimes encouraged in some countries
  • Blowing your nose, spitting or picking your teeth is sometimes considered repulsive
  • Picking lice, ticks and fleas is offensive in many developed countries
  • Chewing nails in public is often seen as rude
  • Watch where your hands are
    • Don’t put your hands near your privates
    • Stretching or yawning is sometimes seen as rude
    • Don’t scratch yourself, or if you do try to make it subtle
  • Subtly remove something from someone else’s clothing or it will be seen as invading privacy

When in public, each region has its own rules for proper behavior

  • Public services and individual schedules don’t always run on time, and impatience might be rude
    • NOT being on time is also rude if everyone else is more timely
  • There are a lot of things that are taboo in public:
    • Walking too fast/running, or walking too slowly
    • Doing anything that draws attention to yourself
      • Tiptoeing or dancing while walking
      • Being loud
      • Getting drunk
      • Showing outrage or anger
      • Taking any clothes off
        • NOT taking clothes off in a place where everyone is supposed to take their clothes off
      • Wearing casual clothing or clothing that exposes too much skin
      • Wearing torn or dirty clothing
      • Wearing covered clothing on a hot day
    • Sitting down when others are forced to stand up
    • Smiling without a visibly obvious reason
    • Chewing gum
    • Not holding the door for others
    • Staring at anyone for more than a few seconds, even if they have something visibly wrong with them
    • Making small talk with a stranger
    • Trying to bargain or haggle
      • NOT trying to bargain or haggle
  • Waiting in a line is absolutely necessary in many countries, but other countries don’t respect the concept of a queue
    • If there is a queue, cutting into it or saving spots in it is considered inappropriate
  • Not everywhere uses the same form of payment, some countries only take their local cash
    • The process of buying and selling also varies in each country

While in a conversation, pay attention to the things you say and do

  • Often a greeting that must be made with anyone when you meet them
    • Greeting with a handshake is sometimes wrong, other times hugging and kissing is expected
    • Calling someone by their first name might be rude, and it’s better to call them a proper title
    • Calling someone by a proper title might be considered pretentious and they prefer their first name to be used
    • Sometimes you must stand to greet someone when you are sitting, even if they are in a lower place in society
    • A hurried greeting with others is usually just as bad as not greeting them at all
  • Your physical position related to theirs matters
    • It’s sometimes offensive to sit while the person you’re talking to is standing
    • In some countries, to have your head higher than a leader’s when talking is considered offensive
  • The volume you speak might be offensively high and threatening or offensively low where they can’t hear you
    • As a general rule, it’s best to match the volume of the group or who you are talking to
  • Pay attention to your age, status and gender in relationship to the other person, sometimes there are special rules for how you should act
    • Men are sometimes not allowed to shake hands with women
    • Younger people are sometimes not allowed to act casually around older ones
    • Poorer people are sometimes not allowed to be close to wealthier people
    • Someone who has an expertise in something should be regarded as an authority on that subject
    • Always look at people with legitimate authority (police, judge, etc) as your superior
    • 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
    • Clear the path for anyone from a higher status, especially in small passageways
    • If you’re among peers, you probably won’t be honored first and it’s rude to look for it
  • Use the highest standard of honor possible when talking with anyone
    • Honor any rules connected to a high-status individual
      • There is often a formalized greeting for talking to very high-ranking individuals
      • When walking, the highest status person is often walking a little ahead either in the middle, on the right side or closest to the wall
      • High-ranking people shouldn’t be stared at
      • Disagreeing with a superior should involve the ideas humbly presented to them
      • Don’t steer the conversation with someone in a higher status
      • Talking to an educated person about dumb or useless things will be offensive
    • Treat anyone of a lower status than you with respect
      • Talking about philosophical ideas, politics and unconventional knowledge around ignorant people will be seen as offensive
  • If you’re not a doctor, it can be rude to try to diagnose someone’s ailment if they tell you they’re sick
  • NOT talking about every personal opinion or detail about your personal life is rude in some countries
  • Some countries consider obesity to be a sign of health and a compliment to be called fat
  • Some jokes are off-limits depending on the country’s views of proper context
  • Having a thin skin about humor in a society that makes a lot of jokes is considered rude
  • Telling jokes in a society that takes most things seriously is often offensive
  • If something is normal in the region, be careful about how you comment about it
  • Sometimes your natural body language will make people think you’re arrogant or make them feel like you’re invading their personal space
    • Laughing with teeth showing might be seen as rude
  • Some countries expect routine public hugging and kissing while others consider physical touch to be impermissible outside of sex
    • Some countries treat the head specifically as sacred, and to touch it or pass anything over it is taboo
  • The technology a generation grew up with as children determines how they carry themselves
    • As technology increases, privacy generally decreases and people become more sophisticated
    • A more educated society means more information, which makes ideas and actions happen faster and time becomes more valuable

Giving gifts is not always straightforward across cultures

  • Giving
    • Many countries expect you to bring a gift if you visit their home
    • Some gifts are taboo to give
      • They might be seen as unlucky or used for a very negative purpose (such as for funerals)
      • A valuable gift could be taken as a bribe
    • Some gifts imply a much more romantic gesture than you may want to imply
  • Receiving
    • Sometimes it’s rude to reject a gift or offer for something, even if you don’t want it
    • It’s considered greedy sometimes if you immediately accept a gift
    • In some countries you’re supposed to decline an offer for food or a gift several times before you accept, but other countries won’t offer a second time
    • Sometimes it’s better to open a gift immediately and sometimes it’s better to open it later
    • Sometimes gifts should only be received with both hands

Eating in different cultures has its own set of rules and proper behavior connected to it

  • Pay close attention to what everyone else is doing around you, from which plate to eat from to what utensils to use
  • The conversation topics in many countries at the dinner table are often limited to smaller things that will not solicit emotional outbursts
  • The place you should sit usually has meaning attached to it, such as one end being the “head” of the table
  • Some countries think eating should be in a place specifically established for eating, while others don’t care
    • Either way, always take the pieces of food that you touch
    • If the culture has individual plates, don’t double-dip a food item into a communal bowl
  • During a toast, it might be taboo about how high you raise your glass compared to everyone else or hitting glasses with others
  • Food can be eaten straight from a communal plate and drunk from a communal cup or it can have designated plates and cups for each person
  • The oldest male should be the first to start eating sometimes, and sometimes the meal is over when the host gets up
    • As a general rule, the head of a household should eat slowest to allow others to enjoy eating
    • Sometimes the guest is meant to start eating
  • Asking or adding seasoning to food is sometimes considered a huge insult to the cook, but in other places nobody cares
  • Adding anything to some alcoholic drinks is considered offensive
  • How you eat your food can be offensive:
    • Doing anything else that isn’t eating 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 learn to rest only your hands on the table
    • Drinking too slow or too fast, or not wiping 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 that you can’t chew with your mouth closed
    • Chewing with your mouth open or talking with food or drink in your mouth
    • Dumping sauce over the food instead of using it as every bite is eaten
    • Spitting out food or throwing food under the table
    • Making noise while eating, or not making noise while eating
    • Some ways to eat food are taboo (cutting noodles, cutting salad leaves, etc)
    • Using a sleeve or arm to wipe your face instead of a napkin
    • Eating the last piece when it wasn’t offered to you
    • Not excusing yourself from the table when you get up
  • Some countries see it as uncivilized to use your hands, and other countries see it as arrogant to use a fork and knife
    • Some eating utensils are not used the way you may use them
      • The fork might not be meant for putting in the mouth
      • Licking the knife or using the knife again without cleaning it first might be wrong
      • Don’t point with chopsticks or stab food with it
      • There are often proper ways to hold the utensils
    • Many times finger foods also have the expectation that you use a napkin regularly as you eat
  • Sometimes finishing your food implies you didn’t get enough, and sometimes not finishing your food implies that you didn’t like it
  • Paying the bill at a restaurant must be done a certain way
    • Sometimes it’s considered rude to offer the bill, meaning that they will wait for you to ask for it
    • Some countries believe the bill should be paid fully by the person who invited the other to eat
    • Other countries believe that the bill should never be split
    • Most places like tipping, but some countries don’t have it as part of their culture and will actually be offended

There are many bad gestures and swearing that make no sense when you learn about it, and it’s best to simply honor it

  • Holding up a middle finger is a nearly universal obscene gesture
  • Most of the gestures that people fail at will either involve pointing at an object or doing something so common that it’s subconscious
    • Showing the bottom of your foot is seen as rude in many countries
    • Pointing ranges from using a thumb to using an index finger to using the entire hand
    • Using your left hand for anything that isn’t the bathroom is sometimes seen as offensive
  • Sometimes it is rude to stand with one hand in your pocket or with both hands in your pocket
  • Many numbers are considered unlucky
    • 13 is unlucky in the USA
    • 4 is unlucky in China
    • An even number is unlucky in Russia

Visiting someone’s home usually involves special rules specific to a region

  • While it is offensive in some countries to be late, others will be offended if you show up on time
  • Some people treat their home with full disclosure and the assumption that you should pretend you live there, but other people see it as an act of constant involvement by the host
  • Some nations view showing off a bedroom to be permissible and normal, but others prefer that guests never leave the common area
  • Touching things in other peoples’ homes might be off-limits
  • It’s impolite in many countries to bring friends with you when invited to someone’s home
  • It’s not practical to have guests over frequently for a meal, so often a standard gratitude is necessary when it becomes commonplace
  • When entering someone’s home, some countries expect you to take your shoes off, and others prefer you keep them on
  • Some countries encourage you to share in the rest of a party’s alcohol if you brought your own, but others consider it taboo
  • In some countries it’s encouraged to visit someone’s home, but in others you’re doing something very offensive

There are many small one-time situations that you can cross boundaries without realizing it

  • Many small things might not be allowed, from taking photographs to the number of items you give, and some of them are actually against the law there
  • Pay attention to the religious customs of the area, though you may not have to share in them there are some things that are extremely 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 based on the 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 extremely rude
  • Sometimes in a routine public event, a person will claim a chair as their own, and it is rude to sit in it even if you weren’t aware
  • When someone is publicly speaking it is often rude to disturb the audience, speak loudly over them or try to help/prompt them without their permission
    • Questions about the speech are usually best made at the end
Next: Coexistence 104: Tact & Charm