The Downside of Dos and Don’ts

Most people love lists, particularly some of us as we get older; without a list things wouldn’t get done. I was recently advised when contacting the media about a news items that it would get more attention if it included a list such as ‘the top 10 tips for traveling abroad.’ Similar to ‘top’ lists, dos and don’ts lists are equally popular because it puts information into nice, neat categories that are easier to remember. While there are certainly benefits to dos and don’ts, they are less effective for areas where vast degrees of variation exist, such as cultural etiquette.

We know that people greet each differently depending on factors including: age, familiarity, situation, and culture. When we are introduced to someone we are making a first and potentially lasting impression, so most of us strive to do it well. Bill Gates’ recent cultural faux pas of shaking the president of South Korea’s hand while his other hand was in his pocket is an example of the challenges with dos and don’ts. Cultural guides frequently provide advice about proper greeting etiquette by country, but I have never read one that reminded readers of the importance of not having your other hand in a pocket. People always want cultural dos and don’ts but this is a great example of the challenges with such lists. Lists can never be exhaustive.

Bill Gates’ big faux pas is newsworthy because of who he is. It is doubtful that is will have any long-lasting negative effect on him or Microsoft, however, the ramifications for other individuals who make a cultural faux pas while conducting business across cultures might not be as negligible. Everyone interacting with people from other cultures needs to develop some cultural competence, either through training or reading, and apply the golden rules of being respectful and non-judgmental.

What is your opinion about dos and don’ts?


Interested in building cultural competence? Check out Subtle Differences, Big Faux Pas, more information at: