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Why Is It Important to Understand Social Codes?

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

We show respect for others and for ourselves by knowing and abiding by social codes.

My earliest memory is me as a small child with my mother. We are at O’Hare International Airport. I’m crying because I already miss my dad, and I just dropped my toy; I watched it fall through the wire stairs and crash onto the tarmac. I’m dressed in a little English wool coat, neat tights and shoes. I am sure the dress I am wearing underneath matches. My mother is telling me to stop crying. “Be British!” she says. This, I eventually would learn, meant do not make a public spectacle of myself. I was two.

My very first memory involves two of my life-long passions; social codes and travel.

Social codes are the accepted rules of behavior; the manner in which we present ourselves and how we communicate our way through life. We show respect for others and for ourselves by knowing and abiding by social codes.

A person without at least a fundamental knowledge of social codes is at a real disadvantage. At best, you can be exposing yourself and others to embarrassment or hurt. At worst, you can be limited. This lack of knowledge can hold you back in your career, your social life and maybe even in your relationships.

Social codes encompass a vast landscape including all forms of social and business etiquette and protocol. They tell us how to act properly; basically, how to mind our P’s and Q’s. There are all manners of codes; codes of conduct, dress codes, codes of honor, and if we get out of line; criminal codes. Social codes can be broadly accepted rules of behavior, or they may pertain specifically to certain groups; such as cultures, regions, religions, ethnicities, genders. Even in our digital world, writing code instructs the computer how to act; essentially, what behavior is expected.

Social codes of various forms have been with us since the very beginning. It is interesting to learn how some codes wane, some completely disappear, while others endure for centuries.

My mother was very bright, very proper and a proud British subject who spoke the Queen’s English. Her upbringing taught her to dress up for travel, especially international flights. You looked the part, down to the last detail. My, how times have changed!

I was on an international flight a couple of weeks ago, and I will just say, I think my mother would have thought the passengers were headed to the gym, not a flight to London. On this flight, I wore slacks, nice ones, but no more matching coats and dresses. Comfort has overruled seemingly old fashioned “fancy” dress codes for travel.

Other social codes, such as handshakes, have been around since at least the ninth century B.C. Throughout history, hand shaking has been depicted as a pledge, displaying trust and forming a bond. This basic social code; shaking hands is still widely used today. In most of the western world, shaking hands is a common greeting between friends and colleagues.

I am asked routinely, why is it important to be aware of these social codes and to care about etiquette?

Fairly recently, I completed a Masters Degree in Protocol and Soft Diplomacy in Brussels. In class, I befriended a lovely, pious fellow from the United Arab Emirates. When we had completed the course and were saying our goodbyes, I nearly leaned in to give my friend a hug. Then I saw his face and realized, that no, I absolutely could not hug him, could not even shake his hand, as it would break a social code. I was well aware of that, but the emotional high of the moment nearly cost me dearly. I realized my near-miss and covered my heart with my hand, as did he, and we said our goodbye. See, even I catch myself forgetting a social code every now and then!

If you want to succeed, to be your best self, you need the proper tools to navigate across cultural boundaries. Boundaries need not be across continents, they can be right in front of you. Maybe your office culture varies from department to department and you have to learn how to navigate across them to achieve success. You need to understand and appreciate social codes to enable successful, respectful communication.

Mastering these tools will set you apart and help you succeed. Why not invest in yourself and fill your social code toolbox to the brim?


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