Etiquette in a “Multi-Culti” World

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If you haven’t already heard the newest buzz word for “multi-cultural,” it’s “multi-culti.”

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area is the best.  We truly live in a “multi-culti” area, where we don’t have to travel far to meet people from all over the world, and we can easily enjoy the many diverse restaurants, shops and celebrations taking place throughout the Bay Area.

Here are three reminders of how cultural differences continue to perplex people not familiar with Asian customs.

·    Greetings: In the Western world, it is customary to shake hands when we meet someone for the first time – on the street, at an office, at home, at an event.  It’s also the custom to shake hands when departing.  In the Asian culture the time-honored tradition is to simply to bow.  In India, Thailand and other parts of the world, the custom is to place both hands together, fingers pointing up to the heavens, and say, “Namaste” or “Wai.”  Today, we are seeing a blending of all these practices.  I see people combining a slight bow, or the “Namaste” and “Wai,” followed by a handshake.  Learning how to greet someone properly is the best way to win friends quickly.

·    Receiving Gifts: I love how Chinese etiquette requires a person to refuse and decline a gift or invitation of any kind at least twice or three times before accepting.  In American culture, however, if the American offers the Asian a cup of tea, and the Asian refuses it, there will not usually be a second or third chance to say yes.  What I see most is: “Would you like a cup of tea?”  “Oh, no thank you.”   “Are you sure?” “Well, all right.  Thank you.”  Two rounds are all there will be.  Don’t hesitate for that cup of tea if you want it.

·    Touching: Asians who are new to the U.S. are often uncomfortable with how familiar and physical Americans are when meeting and conversing with one another.  I remember being at a dinner party where the guests of honor were this lovely couple, who were on their first trip to the U.S. and San Francisco.  I saw how uncomfortable the wife became when one of the American guests kept touching and poking at her arm as she was talking.  Another awkward moment occurred at the end of the evening when a male guest gave her a big hug and kiss on the cheek as he said good-bye. The wife smiled and received it graciously, but I could see she was totally lost in terms of how she was to handle or react to such physical contact.

Asian Pacific Heritage Month is not only about celebrating our own culture and heritage within our own ethnic communities.  Yet, to me the true purpose is to celebrate, share and help educate each other about the many similarities and unique qualities we each have.  This month, have fun organizing a party among co-workers and friends to celebrate APA Heritage Month. Take kids and friends to the many events happening throughout the Bay Area.  Set aside time to enjoy other celebrations each year, including Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month and the many other celebrations happening each year.  Ask people you know to tell you more about their culture and heritage and to share their stories.  This is truly what life is all about.

As Confucius says:  “All people are the same, it’s only their habits that are different.”

Happy Practicing!


Syndi Seid is a professional trainer, celebrity speaker, international author, and founder of San Francisco-based Advanced Etiquette.  See for more information.

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