If you have done any kind of travel, especially for business, you will have noticed there can be huge differences in the way we communicate, ways of dress, leisure activities and business practices from coast to coast. Our cultural norms—how we behave socially or in business from region to region, or age group to age group—can feel as dramatic as visiting a foreign land.
According to social and cultural psychologists, the stereotypes we hear are true—the East is more old and established and the West is more new and free, and this does not change in the business world.
Crossing the Communication Border
The way people speak—the words, tone and dialect they use—is one of the biggest differences we see from coast to coast. This can be especially challenging in business settings.
How we greet each other is often unique to a region. In the Northeast, people are less likely to greet others with a “hello” while walking to their office, unless they know the person. In the South and the West, however, if you pass someone in the hallway, or are sharing a long elevator ride, it would be odd not to smile or extend a casual greeting to the individual.
And, of course, if you are in the South you can expect to be greeted with a cheery “Yes, ma’am” or a “Hi ya’ll!” from all levels of the corporate ladder. By simply paying attention to a greeting, you can easily understand where someone’s roots are planted.
Differences within cross-regional communication also apply to indirect communication. In New York City, busy businesspeople move from home to work with purpose. They are accustomed to the busyness around them—to the point where the sounds they encounter from Point A to Point B fall on deaf ears.
Emma Stone solidified this in a recent interview about filming the latest Spiderman movie. Busy New York office workers hustled along and were so oblivious to the action (where cars were literally being blown up) that they had to hire people to react to the situations. You are less likely to see that kind of reaction on the West Coast. Though just as determined and focused in their business life, if cars are blowing up around them, they’re likely to stop and watch the action.
When it comes to business communication, the most important thing to remember is to be open and flexible—and if you’re unsure of what behavior is expected or appreciated, just ask.
Dressing for Success
Take for example a recent client’s visit to coastal California. In what we would call the business hub of the city, she found businessmen and women dressed in casual attire. Gentlemen rarely wear suits—opting for pressed khakis and a nice polo shirt in its place. Where suits and ties are a rare occurrence in the West, gentlemen seem to shower with them on in the East.
A West Coast businessperson was surprised on a recent business trip to New York City because of how different the corporate culture felt. Men and women in suits scurried from the subway to the office—grabbing a bagel at the local food cart. Said businessperson exclaimed how New Yorkers moved with intention. She, herself, felt that she couldn’t keep up with them, and she wasn’t the one in 3-inch heels! The atmosphere in the West is definitely more laid back and casual.
In the South where temperatures and humidity are higher, you rarely see women wearing pantyhose to the office unless required by a dress code. An interesting tidbit to note: women who work in the White House or on Parliament Hill must wear stockings or hose and closed-toe shoes all year round. Though this may be surprising, those that work closely with other cultures must set a high standard and respect other’s cultural beliefs around dress codes.
Since wearing inappropriate clothing to a foreign area can sometimes be awkward and embarrassing, there are things you can do to ensure the comfort of others when faced with cultural and regional differences. Do your homework before your next business trip by making Google your go-to resource. Enter in the address or area, such as Downtown Vancouver, where you’ll be prompted with a street view that allows you to see how people are dressed. Or, simply search for the city’s business attire, such as Business Attire Vancouver, for a host of resources that discuss etiquette do’s and don’ts catered to that city.
We’ve all heard the expression that begins “When in Rome . . .” When it comes to traveling for business, the expression holds true. It’s important to be respectful of local customs and traditions. Prior to scheduling your business travels, it is essential to check the region’s observed holidays. Where Jewish holidays are honored in Southern Florida and the Northeast, the Midwest and the Southwest are known to embrace the traditions of Cinco de Mayo. However in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, you will likely find that only traditional holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are observed. These are all important to keep in mind when scheduling business trips.
Respecting cultural boundaries also takes effect in more intimate circumstances such as hugging and cheek kissing. Some things to consider are how long you have known the person and whether you are friends with them outside of the business arena. The setting also comes into consideration here; what if their boss is present? No matter how well you know the person, a handshake may be the better choice in this situation.
Is the Gap Narrowing?
While it’s true that there are definite cultural nuances, it’s also true that these differences seem to be narrowing as younger generations move into the business world. Co-working spaces are opening across the country—east to west. Millennials and Gen Yers are slowly changing the way we work and it’s happening everywhere. Working from co-working spaces or coffee shops have become the norm for this generation and working traditions are far less formal than what generations before them are accustomed to.
No matter what part of the country you are in, the most important thing to remember is that you are in someone else’s backyard—not yours, so avoid making any judgments. By being respectful, receptive, and inclusive of new cultures and norms, it may be a deal breaker for your clients. And when in doubt, let it go. No one is trying to offend you.
Margaret Page is founder and CEO of Etiquette Page Enterprises and the author of several books, including The Power of Polite: The Essential Guide to Etiquette in Business.