Civility Across Culture: Dressing the Part

Culture is both ethereal and powerful. Workplace civility has close ties to both national and organizational culture.

First, cultures vary on the behaviors they consider to be civil or uncivil. Before meeting with a potential client, I asked about the dress code. My colleague noted that with this organization, he always wore a tie. It was the only organization for which he wore a tie, but he was always very careful to do so for meetings with this organization. When we walked through the open space facility at this organization, I noted few employees wore ties. So it was an important attire for visitors, not necessarily for employees.

More on ties: when giving a lecture in Japan, I asked my host about wearing a tie. He replied that if the lecture was being delivered by a Japanese colleague, the men would all wear ties, but because the lecture was being delivered by a North American, they would assume I would be more comfortable if they did not wear ties. So, I didn’t wear a tie and none of the men at the lecture wore a tie.

Both organizations and cultures vary on their power distance as well as the behaviors that are appropriate to recognize another person’s authority. The clothing worn for occasions is one part of accommodating to that culture. It is important to show that you cared enough to make an effort.

The basic idea is to acknowledge that cultures vary. It is better to ask someone for guidance than to make a guess. Guesses are often based on previous experience that may lack relevance to a new culture. Guesses may also be based on a misunderstanding or an outmoded view of the other culture.

The more you expand your world, the more you have to learn.

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