Why the Dos-and-Don’ts List Is Not Enough (And What to Do Instead)

As a fundraiser and intercultural communications consultant, I’m often asked to help prepare donors and staff for the cultural differences they will encounter when interacting with populations both within the United States and around the world. For example, if a group of donors from the United States is traveling to Ethiopia to tour projects they have helped fund, I am often asked to do a training that will prepare them for the logistical and cultural differences they will encounter. Many people think that this training will entail a one-page list of dos and don’ts—things like:

  • Start meetings with social pleasantries before getting straight to business.
  • Don’t touch food with your left hand.
  • Refer to people by their first names.

Simple enough, but unfortunately insufficient.

If I asked you to make a list of dos and don’ts for yourself, what would be on there?
Would reading that list be enough for any stranger to cultivate a successful working relationship with you?

Probably not.

Now imagine making a list that is supposed to prepare someone for an entire nation, neighborhood, or even workplace of people.

What about the entire United States?

Sure, we can find patterns in our behaviors and communication that people living in the United States are generally expected to follow (see above chart), but we will always quickly hit upon our social and cultural diversity, shaped and influenced by geography, economic circumstance, race, age, gender, identity, and so on.

And culture is not limited to customs—everyday behaviors and practices. It also includes those values and beliefs that govern every aspect of our lives and interactions. We want our encounters with others to be authentic, not contrived, rehearsed procedures. We also want them to be effective and to take into account how the other person wants to be treated, not how we think we would want to be treated.

What one-pager could possibly address all that?

The fact is, the dos-and-don’ts list fails for a few reasons.

1. It covers only the most superficial of interactions.

Greetings, dining etiquette, home visit protocol… This is often insufficient for complex working situations, such as negotiating a contract, developing and implementing a program, or discussing systemic inequities and power differences.

2. It’s too general, not site specific, and not tailored to the individual receiving the list.

A dos-and-don’ts list lacks nuance. Culture varies greatly depending on the location of the site within the country, the culture of the organization conducting business there, and of course, the individual people involved. While there are some things about Ethiopian culture that can be generalized (like not eating injera with your left hand), most of the way you communicate will depend on the exact who, what, and where. Not only does a list lack specific advice about the site and individuals, the list is also not tailored to you—the receiver, the traveler, the visitor. You may know these people well and have the greeting protocol down to a science but struggle in negotiations or in providing critical feedback (which, by the way, could be a challenge you face in your home country too). Sufficient advice and preparation takes your experience, your talents, and your struggles into account. No generic list from the internet can do that.

3. It assumes that only one person will adapt.

These types of lists tell the donors and the staff how to adapt their behaviors for the people and organizations they’re visiting and wrongly assume the reverse is not happening! People who partner with nonprofits often have years of experience working with people from different backgrounds. They likely also have significant experience code-switching, which “involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” We should be prepared for the ways in which people have adapted or are trying to adapt to us.

4. Nobody remembers more than three items on a list (and, yes, I know this is the fourth on this list).

Memory scientists have found that our recall is surprisingly limited. We can only confidently remember three things at once, and the fourth one is iffy. A dos-and-don’ts list with even ten items on it is likely to be 60–70 percent forgotten. That means you can really only recall three or four things from the list, which is especially ineffective if (1) you already know those things, (2) they aren’t relevant, or (3) they are too generic to be applied. If we really remember so little, we have to make our trainings and preparation as specific, relevant, and immediately applicable as possible.

So, what do we do instead?

  • Scrap the dos-and-don’ts list and instead give specific context to people embarking on these experiences through stories, real examples, and visuals.
  • Be direct about what they will see, hear, smell, and taste.
  • Provide ongoing messaging to each participant that reinforces what was learned, and so that any modification and adaptation is tailored specifically to them.
  • Lastly, have deeper conversations about the dynamics of power and privilege, which are present in every cultural interaction.

Thoughtful self-reflection, contextual understanding, and advice that is specific to the site and the individual will go a lot further than any generic dos-and-don’ts list.