Monday, September 18, 2017


Politeness is relative; what impresses people in one culture can offend in another. This is an important distinction to understand if you want to be taken seriously and viewed respectfully by your colleagues. And, it’s also important to grasp lest you think Americans are being rude to you, when nothing of the sort is intended!

People from Latin cultures, who take time to enter or conclude a conversation with deliberate words of personal politeness, may find American directness to be rudely impersonal. For example, entering the office and announcing “good morning” to your co-workers may be met with a silent nod, or even no acknowledgement at all.

East and Southeast Asians, who tend to wait to be called on before replying, may see Americans as rudely “interrupting” one another and never offering a chance for you to participate. In fact, the Americans would see their behavior as “enthusiastic” and “engaged,” while they would view you as “disinterested” or having nothing of value to contribute.
Here are some “usual norms” for Americans. As you read them, think about whether each is the case in your culture.
  • Not allowing much silence between speakers in a conversation.
  • Not waiting to be called on, but rather jumping into the conversation to express a point.
  • Speaking directly, rather than holding back your true views.
  • Expressing your disagreement, when you feel differently, rather than waiting to be asked your opinion or expressing it long afterwards.
  • Supporting another person’s comment, when you agree, rather than staying silent.
  • Explaining further if someone argues with your point of view, rather than flatly yielding to another’s opinion.
But all of these responses must be done “politely” by American standards. This may involve certain accommodating gestures or “softening” words or phrases leading to your point. It may be a challenge for non-native people to achieve this, and so must be learned and practiced.

Before adding helpful phrases and gestures to your vocabulary, begin by “mirroring” the Americans around you. More on this important technique of keen observation in our next Tip.