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3 Expert Tips on Cultural Etiquette in the Workplace

Updated: May 20, 2019

San Francisco Executive Coach Dr. Nadine Greiner

Many of my clients travel globally, and oftentimes, cultural norms are at play. We are often unaware of our own culture until we travel to different countries or different companies.

The most effective executives recognize that even subtle, seemingly insignificant behaviors can affect their professional image.

1. Think carefully about your wardrobe

As an executive, it’s important to devote care and attention to your wardrobe. A study conducted by staffing firm OfficeTeam found that 86% of workers and 80% of managers believe that one's wardrobe selections affect one's chances of being promoted.

You might expect as much, but what does that mean, exactly? Wardrobe norms differ notably across cultures. In the UAE, for example, modesty of dress in the workplace tends to be very important. Wardrobe norms also differ across office cultures. Wearing a wrinkled or worn blazer or sporting an unshaven face can indicate a lack of concern for your personal appearance. A slovenly appearance can be interpreted as lack of professionalism or, worse yet, a sign of disrespect. It’s best to err on the middle-of-the-road side. Vigilantly observe your corporate culture and recognize that your attire triggers psychological effects in others that can affect your chances of career advancement.

San Francisco Executive Coach Dr. Nadine Greiner

2. Exercise discretion when discussing personal matters at work

As a busy executive, it can be difficult to separate your personal life from your professional life. Research by Bensinger, DuPont & Associates found that 47% of employees say that problems in their personal lives sometimes affect their work performance.

Different office cultures have different established norms with respect to the extent to which personal matters should be discussed in the workplace. As a general rule, for my international clients, it’s best to keep personal life discussions to a minimum. Sharing some information about your personal life (details about your recent Napa Valley wine tasting weekend, for example) can help you foster stronger relationships with your colleagues.

However, sharing too much information can convey a lack of professionalism and make your coworkers uncomfortable, especially those from more conservative cultures. But it is safe to assume that if your colleagues have been told the details of your drunken escapades at Coachella or your wandering eyes, you’ve gone too far.

3. Be cognizant of eye contact

Our body language is often more influential than our spoken language. Eye contact can be an especially powerful method of communication. Norms associated with eye contact are highly specific to different cultures. In Western Cultures, too little eye contact can indicate a lack of interest and can jeopardize your ability to establish emotional connections with others. A study by Quantified Impressions found that adults establish eye contact approximately 30-60% of the time during conversations, yet they should be establishing eye contact about 60-70% of the time in order to establish an emotional connection. On the other hand, making direct eye contact is considered aggressive and even rude in other cultures. In many cultures, for example, avoiding eye contact with a member of the opposite sex or a superior in the workplace is seen as a display of respect.

As an executive, your behaviors have a profound impact on your ability to establish a strong executive presence. Especially as our workforce becomes increasingly global, it’s imperative that you devote time to diagnosing and evaluating different cultural and behavioral norms. Research by found that 62% of business travelers believe that etiquette errors affect companies’ bottom lines.

A mentor or buddy who has experience in different cultures can help you evaluate how your behaviors are perceived by your international peers and superiors. You will want to have enough cross cultural fluency and emotional intelligence to adapt to prevailing cultural norms and values.


San Francisco Executive Coach Dr. Nadine Greiner Ph.D.

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. provides Executive Coaching and Human Resources solutions. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.

As an organization psychologist and former corporate CEO, Dr. Nadine understands the pressures and demands executives face. She offers her clients the high expertise that only comes with three decades of consulting success, and a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology. Dr. Nadine is an in-demand speaker, teaches in doctoral programs, and coaches other consultants. She is the author of two books: ‘The Art of Executive Coaching: Secrets to Unlock Leadership Performance’, and of ‘Stress-less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and in Life’.

Contact Information: Feel free to email Dr. Nadine San Francisco Executive Coaching at or by phone at (415) 861-8383.


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