When is a pat on the head taboo?

QUESTION:

Recently, Estrin Education received a communication from a reader expressing her discomfort when a coworker pats the head of a client’s child.

MY RESPONSE:

Our increasingly global society yields many benefits, one of which can be a greater understanding and appreciation for other cultures and customs. But what happens if a custom from your culture is prohibited in another? For many people, it can be surprising to learn that a behavior they associate with warmth and affection is considered rude and/or taboo in another culture.

Such is the case of the practice of head touching in Western culture. Many westerners fondly remember grandma, grandpa or even the friendly stranger affectionately patting our head or tousling our hair. Perhaps we’ve done it ourselves and reached out to touch the head of someone’s adorably cute child, an act that is meant – and seen – as a sign of approval or even love. So for many of us, myself included, it is quite surprising to learn that touching the head of another person can be a sign of bad manners in Asian cultures. In many Asian cultures (especially those in the Southeast) the head is a sacred body part as it is believed that the soul resides in the head. Random head touching just isn’t done.

Even I will admit that trying to remember the different customs of other cultures can sometimes feel overwhelming, but this one is easy. Regardless of your cultural beliefs, it is inappropriate to touch the head of a client’s child. Period.

Common business courtesy dictates that the children of clients be treated as you would treat the client – if the child is old enough to shake hands, greet the child and extend your hand to shake. If the child shakes your hand, fine. If the child declines, don’t force it, and don’t touch any other body part, including the head. Presumably, the child’s parent is in the office to work with you and there is no issue if the child doesn’t want to interact with you. Think about it, would you pat the head of an adult client? I certainly hope not!

About the Author

Stayce Wagner is the Founder and CEO of Spencer Crane Etiquette, LLC, located in Los Angeles, California and Atlanta, Georgia. Ms. Wagner is a certified Corporate Etiquette and International Protocol Consultant trained by The Protocol School of Washington. A former paralegal with more than 20 years experience in corporate legal environments, Stayce is a popular guest blogger and writer on the topics of social and business etiquette.

Legal professionals, do you have a pressing business etiquette question? Then ask Stayce!

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