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If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the appropriate thing to do in a social situation, you’re probably not alone.
Learning etiquette can save you from doing the wrong thing in front of friends or colleagues and is a way for you to exhibit your knowledge of social norms. However, etiquette can be difficult to master because the rules are often unwritten and can vary between regions and countries.
As a college student, you likely won’t need to know which fork at a place setting to use, but remembering a few important etiquette rules may save you from looking socially incompetent.
Lecture hall etiquette
Whether you are in your first semester of lectures or your last, you know that professors and peers alike get frustrated when students don’t practice basic courtesy.
“It’s not cool to be sitting there and texting or watching Netflix, especially in a large lecture section,” said Paul Buckley, a clinical associate professor of chemistry.
Put your cell phone away, unless it is being used for coursework-related purposes. Many professors state a cell phone policy in their syllabus, but even if one isn’t written it is a general expectation that students keep cell phones put away in order to prevent distractions.
Other elements of lecture hall etiquette can be fairly intuitive, but are sometimes easy for students to forget.
“If you have to leave class early, for whatever reason, sit by a door,” Buckley said. Getting up in the middle of a lecture disrupts others. Be polite and plan ahead if you need to leave early.
If you happen to arrive late, enter quietly and ask another student what you missed in order to avoid questions that have already been addressed.
Professors have to answer everyone’s questions and it can be frustrating when a question was answered at the beginning of class or in the syllabus. Out of courtesy, use your resources to answer any questions you might have before consulting the professor.
If you are unsure what to do in a lecture hall situation, think about what you would expect someone else to do.
Whether you are eating at one of the dining halls on campus or at a restaurant in the community, you should be aware of the etiquette to practice during your meal.
If you are eating out, treat servers or staff respectfully. Be aware of the expected tipping amount and tip accordingly. You may be a broke college student, but so are your servers.
When in doubt, observe others. It is perfectly acceptable to mimic the behavior of other restaurant patrons if you are unsure of the courteous way to proceed.
Even if you have etiquette in the U.S. mastered, acting correctly in foreign countries can be tricky because they have different social norms that are not intuitive for Americans.
“Be the person that follows what everyone else is doing and I think that is probably the safest thing to do,” said Christine Oakley, director of WSU’s Global Learning Department.
The most important thing to do before embarking on foreign travel is research. Some practices that seem commonplace to Americans, like shaking hands, are not expected or are even considered disrespectful in other countries. Look online for specific etiquette questions about the country you’ll be traveling to before you go, Oakley said.
In countries like India and Bangladesh, women may be asked if they are married or have children. This may seem rude, but these are perfectly normal questions in some countries and travelers should not be offended by them. Similarly, questions that we find normal like asking where a person is from or what they do may seem invasive.
Many Americans are used to carrying their own bags, but in some places there are people whose job it is to do this.
“It’s breaking of etiquette to carry your own bags,” Oakley said. “It may feel a little awkward, but you’re not in the U.S. anymore.”
Wearing proper clothing is another element of etiquette you must consider. It is inappropriate for adults to wear shorts in a lot of countries. In others, shorts are acceptable but must be a certain length or covered with something when entering a place of worship or other similar institution.
You aren’t expected to know every etiquette rule in a foreign country, but be sure to do your research and be observant.
“Realize that you will probably make some mistakes and that that’s OK,” Oakley said. “People around the world are understanding if you do something outside their etiquette norms.”
Etiquette can be difficult to master, but you don’t need to pay for lessons in order to be socially competent. Be observant, ask questions and do your research to learn about less-obvious rules of courtesy. Be polite and proactive and you will surely impress everyone you meet.