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Considering Cultural Etiquette

By Paul Myers, CMA, CSCA, CPA
September 1, 2022

Learning and participating in different cultural practices helps professionals show respect to the members of different cultures with whom they interact.

 

One of the key outcomes of learning and growing in diversity, equity, and inclusion is to better respect and appreciate the differences in perspective and approach. In a global community, one of the fundamental ways we can do that is to learn about different cultures and their etiquette practices. As accounting and finance professionals, many of us meet with individuals from different cultures in some capacity; for example, by attending events, taking business trips, and visiting or being visited by colleagues from another country, such as supply chain partners or coworkers from an international office.

 

Your organization might be working to serve a global marketplace, or you might be welcoming a new team member from another culture. You may have even made connections with other members from other cultures through activities in IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) and its global community.

 

The diversity of thought and values from other cultures can bring many rewards, but it may also bring initial challenges when trying to ensure respect and inclusivity of practices and customs. Derek Fuzzell, in the June 2020 issue of Strategic Finance, gave us an overview of understanding cultural archetypes and how this can help organizations more effectively conduct business across cultural lines. Part of understanding these cultural differences involves learning and participating in cultural etiquette practices.

 

CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS

 

Cultural etiquette is important when developing and maintaining relationships with individuals from other cultures. Understanding the social manners of the cultures of the associates you’re working with will help you be prepared to most effectively participate in activities with them. The spectrum of customs varies from greetings to simple dining issues to more serious issues related to stereotypes or inequalities.

 

The first encounter may likely involve greeting one or more individuals. In today’s environment, you may have had the opportunity to first meet virtually, which may alleviate some of the anxiety you might have in this type of situation. Typical considerations involve whether there will be bowing vs. hand shaking and the related firmness, as well as which hand to use. You’ll also want to understand what’s appropriate for eye contact and the related implications. The overall order of whom you’re greeting to display the proper respect can also be of significance.

 

Knowing proper verbal greetings is important as well. For example, the practice of using first names, surnames, titles, degrees, and so forth varies from country to country, so learn what’s appropriate. Knowing some common or key phrases in the local language also could be very useful in making a connection.

 

In conjunction with the gestures involved in the greeting process, there are other notes about how we use our hands in areas of indication and conversation. The use of hand gestures and how they’re interpreted may vary by culture. Some examples of gestures that have different meanings in different areas of the world include: the V(ictory) sign, pointing fingers, and crossing fingers. The direction of the hand, or the use of right hand vs. left hand, can also impact the meaning of a gesture. The best practice would be to avoid or minimize the use of hand gestures until you have confirmed their meaning with someone in that culture.

 

FOOD AND DINING DIFFERENCES

 

Another common area where accounting and finance professionals might encounter cultural differences is when dining. There are many areas included under this topic, so it can be helpful to do some research prior to the lunch or dinner meeting. One main area of consideration is the types of food to order. The foods that you eat in your average day might not be acceptable as part of the diet in other cultures, so educate yourself beforehand when possible.

 

For example, ordering chicken is often a more common safe choice than beef or pork due to cultural standards that may stem from religious or other social practices. You may also want to note the use of additional spices or condiments, as some cultures consider adding these an insult that the food wasn’t prepared properly. Learning how many courses are expected with the meal can be helpful as well so that you can pace yourself accordingly.

 

If you’re traveling abroad and attending a business dinner at a restaurant, you’ll want to recognize what the practice is for tipping, because some cultures are offended by it while others expect it. It’s also good to understand the implications of clearing your plate, as some cultures show respect by refilling plates when emptied. When in doubt, follow the lead of the other guests or the host as much as possible. Be open as much as your dietary practices allow to show courtesy to your hosts. Showing your gratitude for the efforts of hospitality will be much appreciated by those providing it and can help strengthen relationships.

 

LEARNING TO COMPROMISE

 

Cultural etiquette may require a level of compromise at times. Sometimes, the compromise will be minimal, easy to accept, and possibly even enjoyable. Other times, the differences between cultural norms can be rather significant. For example, the roles between genders may be viewed differently, which can lead to various emotions. Other cultural stereotypes that might cause you to struggle may be based on race, sexual orientation, or age. When possible, understand how your company manages or addresses those differences in these multicultural relationships. It’s important to evaluate your values and what you’re comfortable with changing, and where compromise may not be possible.

 

The best plan in being prepared to deal with cultural etiquette is to be informed and do your research. Assuming that your interaction will be related to a work function, one of your best resources can be to review information with coworkers who have already participated in similar events or trips. They will likely have the most relevant information to guide your specific situation.

 

Another option would be to reach out to trusted peers who have engaged with partners in the same or a similar culture. Online research can be useful as well, but do your best to verify information on more than one trustworthy website for accuracy and authenticity. Depending on the level of your relationship, you can even reach out to those you’ll be meeting to share your sincere intention to respect and learn their culture’s practices.

 

Learning about and participating in cultural practices that are new to you display your openness to new ideas and connections. Making an investment to learn about those you’ll be meeting and engaging with will reflect your respect for the relationship. Through these efforts, you’ll help put into practice the principle of inclusivity and respect to your coworkers, candidates, business partners, and beyond.

 

Paul Myers, CMA, CSCA, CPA, is a client services associate at Vantage Point Financial Services, LLC; chair of IMA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; and a member of IMA’s Dayton Chapter. He can be reached at myersp70@gmail.com.
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