Five Cross-Cultural Etiquette Tips for Doing Business in Boston

In a global economy, being woke is part of the work.

four people at a business meeting

Photo via 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

Boston is considered one of the most culturally, ethnically and racially diverse cities in the United States. Thanks to its status as a center for innovation in technology, healthcare, academia, and culture, Boston continues to draw people from all ethnicities and all points of the globe. The richness and influence of the city’s immigrant population, therefore, makes it imperative to understand the protocol and etiquette of cross-cultural interactions and social and business networking. Consider these statistics from Boston’s Office of Immigrant Advancement: One in four Bostonians is foreign-born; immigrants account for 28 percent of Boston’s population; there are 140 languages spoken by Boston residents, and 39 percent of those residents speak a language other than English in their homes. With a little homework and a lot of open-mindedness, you can navigate the kaleidoscope of Boston’s immigrant landscape without embarrassing gaffes, faux pas and miscommunications. Here are some tips to help you become more racially and culturally “woke.”

1. Do Your Homework

It’s often been said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Research ahead of time what is an appropriate greeting in a particular culture. For example, is a nod, a handshake, or a bow preferred? Also, attempt to learn what are appropriate topics. In some Arabic and Muslim cultures, for instance, it’s considered inappropriate to inquire about a man’s wife. Remember, building a relationship means making an effort.

2. Be Observant

If you are in doubt about what to do, look at what others are doing, discern what seems to be the “norm,” and then follow suit. When speaking, avoid using idioms, slang and acronyms without an explanation. Avoid humor. In America, humor is often used in the workplace but in many cultures the use of humor and jokes in the business place is considered unprofessional. Business is taken very seriously, and jokes do not always translate well cross-culturally.

3. Build Friendships

In many cultures, friendship and family are the key to establishing good rapport and strong business ties. As someone who was born and raised in Antigua, believe me when I say that many people from the Caribbean are all about friendship first and business second. The premise is: Build a friendship—there is always time to get down to business.

4. Don’t Refuse Hospitality

Hospitality is very important in many cultures. Food and music are considered some of the best ways to connect with others to help teach them about one’s culture. When people go out of their way to make a guest feel comfortable, it may be considered an insult not to accept, so don’t refuse this hospitality.

5. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

There is a saying that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. There are many different ways to expand your social circle. For instance, participate in celebrations and attend events—even if they are virtual—from different cultures. These will enable you to meet, interact with, and make new friends. They are an ideal way of expanding your social circle and creating room to learn about different cultures. So go ahead and take a Zoom Afro yoga flow, salsa dancing, or Zumba class.

Ms. Phillips is president of Colette Phillips Communications, a strategic public relations and diversity and inclusion communications consulting firm. She is also the Founder of Get Konnected! Boston’s premier cross-cultural business networking event series.