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Respecting Racial and Ethnic Differences on the Job

Stereotyping, ridiculing, demeaning, or insulting other people is always a mistake. In business, this behavior can be disastrous. Racial and ethnic differences can be especially complex, particularly in the expanding global market.

Along with the cultural diversity inherent in the global marketplace comes confusion about how to behave. People don't always know how to interact with others from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. In fact, people don't even know whether their behavior should be different.

Race and ethnicity are less important than your beliefs and attitudes about these things. Don't typecast or stereotype because of physical or cultural features. The paramount rule of etiquette — respect for others — rules out such behavior. Nevertheless, differences do exist, and you need to know how to respect them. You also need to know the etiquette of particular situations and how to adjust your verbal and nonverbal behavior for those situations.

Over time, a standard code has emerged to allow people to get along with one another in business and to know what to expect from each other. Standard American English is the international language of business, and standard Western manners are the official protocol in the United States.

For better or worse, if you don't speak or behave according to these standards, you immediately set yourself up for criticism. But by the same token, if you don't recognize and respect those who follow other traditions, you may get yourself in a jam.

A paradox lurks here. The standards of business etiquette in the United States require Standard American English and Western manners. But Standard American English may not be your native language, and you may be a member of a tradition whose codes of manners are different from Western manners. Luckily, you have a way out: When you're in the United States, do as the Americans do.

You don't have to adopt American business etiquette around the clock, of course. At times, U.S. business etiquette is entirely inappropriate, and your role as a professional need not consume your life entirely. U.S. business etiquette applies when you're doing business in the United States. When you're not doing business, or when you're not doing business in the United States, other codes of etiquette apply.

In addition, knowing more than one language helps almost everyone in the business world. Learning even a few words and phrases can be a real plus. In certain businesses — the music industry, for example — slang and jargon are useful. But in almost all other situations, speaking and writing clearly and grammatically are paramount.

Now that you can communicate, how do you behave? Respect dictates that you take it upon yourself to learn about other cultures. If your business regularly takes you to other parts of the world, take a course in protocol, or read about the customs, religions, and expectations of those parts of the world.

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