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Formality Has a Place in the Diverse Workplace

Formality Has a Place in the Diverse Workplace

By Sondra Thiederman, Monster Contributing Writer

Traditional forms of etiquette seem antique in our increasingly casual workplaces. It’s as if casual behavior arrived at work on the coattails — or I should say, khaki cuffs — of casual dress codes and has never left. Most of us are happy about that, but there are times when formality communicates a form of respect that is vital to successful workplace relationships. Respect, after all, is the foundation of both good business and good management.

Formality Matters

Americans have fewer rules of proper social behavior than most other cultures. Perhaps this lack of restriction is a result of a free society. This casual attitude — whether manifested in informal dress, talking with our hands in our pockets, revealing intimate information about ourselves or forgoing the use of professional titles — tends to make colleagues from other cultures question our professionalism. As a result, colleagues or clients from non-US cultures may feel confused about how much authority American managers really have.

The desire for formality varies between different groups. Koreans, for example, are slightly less formal than the Japanese, and Russians somewhat less than the French. But as a general guideline, if you are working in a culturally diverse workplace, it is safer to err in the direction of propriety than to assume everyone prefers American informality. Formality makes many people feel more comfortable, because the rules of etiquette provide a guideline to proper behavior.

Formality and manners define relationships. Most immigrants are accustomed to regarding superiors with respect, perhaps more so than their US colleagues. Thus, they are loath to address their managers in an informal manner, even in social settings. To ask workers from some non-US cultures to address their managers by their first name is like asking American managers to summon their CEO by saying, “Hey, pal,” — a degree of informality alien to even the most casual southern Californian.

Finding Common Ground

Fortunately, there is a compromise that often works to relieve the tension between formal and casual cultures. Asian American and Middle Eastern American employees are sometimes comfortable calling their bosses by the salutation “Mr.,” “Miss,” “Ms.,” “Dr.” or “Mrs.” and then their first names — Mr. Roy, Dr. Jenna, Ms. Judy — a usage that may seem strange and even patronizing to native-born Americans, but which can help solve the problem. This approach represents the kind of cultural compromise that contributes to harmonious cross-cultural relationships.

If you notice your colleagues or employees hesitate to address you by your first name, do not assume that they are cold or distant. It might simply be a cultural difference that can be worked out so everyone feels comfortable. After all, isn’t that what diversity is all about?

This article originally appeared on Monster Advice