Is Business Etiquette Social White Privilege? - [website] Email Print
Published: 24th of Jan 2017 by: Debbie Engelbrecht

Business Etiquette generally means: Widely accepted rules of conduct in a business environment, either through social norm or company values and behaviours.

White Privilege in this definition does not mean an economic privilege; it means the privilege of being raised in the same culture as the prevalent business culture.

In South Africa, this prevalent business culture is still based largely on Western standards, even though we are merging more and more with the BRICS culture.

At Staff Training, over the years, we have trained many individuals on Business Etiquette. I remember our first large group very clearly as we continued to work with all of them for many years thereafter. The entire group was male and they were a good mixture of all races, very representative of South Africa’s rainbow nation.

Many of the guys were young, ranging in age from about 20 to 35. Some had worked before and some not. Some had been given their job as a result of them arriving at the company’s gate to ask for work. They were trained, some to a skilled level and others to a semi-skilled level at the time. And here I was, a generation older, coming from a predominantly office-bound background, faced with eager young faces wanting to hear how things are supposed to be done. A challenge and a dilemma for me as those words “supposed to be done” indicate that there is only one right way, and today thankfully we know that this is not true.

The amount of information they took away from the training was astounding! The simplest of things were interesting and new to them; I remember the one guy slouched in his chair, chewing gum and when we discussed body language, he went into fits of hysterics - he never knew that this “cool dude” approach of his could be offensive to anyone, to the contrary he had been hoping to come across as really confident.

At teatime these guys rushed to the food table and there was simply no food left for those who arrived later. Upon returning I asked them to consider the alternative behaviours and see if we could do better at lunch time. Another great eye-opener and one that many took to heart as in all the subsequent trainings, not once did any of those gentleman touch their plates until one of them had made sure that I as their guest on the premises had been served.

I can carry on for a long time highlighting how the simplest of behaviours, accepted by most people raised in white culture, are untried, untested and even totally foreign to those who were not. Similarly we talk about Muslim culture, generational differences, being aware of disabilities, electronic and online behaviour, travelling, representing your company off site etc. All of these subjects bring their own set of questions from young and willing learners who need a map with which to navigate business etiquette.

Just in closing though, the group of youngsters above have subsequently gone through a slew of training with Staff Training and many of them are today middle managers in a corporate environment. When I come across one of them in a shopping mall or at other events, without exception they refer back to that first training course, how far they have come and how extremely grateful they are for the confidence they gained as a result of Business Etiquette Training.

I know that if I were to go to an event hosted by a culture different to my own, I would certainly feel out of place if I did not have some pointers on how to behave, wouldn’t you? We thus strongly recommend that you empower your teams with similar training, assisting them to gain confidence and bring their full song into the world.

© Debbie Engelbrecht

Debbie is the MD of Staff Training, a soft skills training company offering more than 60 short courses including Etiquette, Diversity, Customer Care and Conflict Management. Find out more here.

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