Strong points
  • There are many unwritten rules for what is considered polite, proper, or rude.
  • Differences in etiquette can be a barrier for migrants trying to break into a social or professional circle.
  • Some migrants admit to learning “the hard way” about what is offensive in Australia.
Etiquette is generally defined as the customary code of what is considered polite behavior and good manners in a society, culture, or among members of a certain social or professional circle.
Amanda King is the founder of the Australian Finishing School. She teaches people from all cultural backgrounds what constitutes acceptable standards of etiquette and conduct in the Australian context.
“Etiquette is about the behavior and norms expected in society,” she explains.
“Having a good etiquette only depends on a few very simple principles, and it could concern our appearance and our general attitude, which constitute this image.”
However, says Ms King in Australia, etiquette depends on your specific environment and circumstances.
“We are demographically and culturally a bit of everything from around the world. So we have English as a base, but culturally we also include Europeans and Americanisms, so we are one, but we are also part of the world,” she adds.

Ms King believes it is crucial that migrants learn and follow accepted, though sometimes unwritten, protocols for entering certain professional or social circles. She explains that the “basic ABCs” of etiquette include appearance, demeanor, eating manners and communication.

Communication is the real key – how to be a skilled conversationalist. In the end, it’s quite difficult when English might not be your first language.

Amanda King, etiquette expert and instructor

Asking prying questions could lead people into uncomfortable territory. Credit: Getty Images/Nicolas McComber

The Biggest No-No: Intrusive Personal Questions

One of the most important unwritten rules of what is considered “good manners” in Australia is to avoid asking questions that are considered inappropriate or taboo, as they might make others feel uncomfortable.
These questions include requesting information related to marital status, finances, religion, and politics, among other topics.
“People want to talk to people to find common ground, so they can connect. So we need to talk about other topics rather than a very personal question that might come across as quite offensive,” says Ms. King.
However, each culture has a different standard of what is considered appropriate. Some long-term migrants admit that they learned “the hard way” that questions that were culturally acceptable to ask in their home country or in their cultural context were considered offensive in Australia.
Winmas Yu is originally from Hong Kong and has lived in Australia for ten years. He says that in China, it’s not uncommon for people to comment on other people’s bodies.

“We have parents or grandparents telling us, ‘OK, you should eat more’, or ‘you should eat less because you look fat, or you look thin.’ But when I got to Australia I realized that some people might take it very personal or offensive, so they don’t really like you commenting on their body shape or even how much they eat.

Establishment guide: a diverse group of people sharing a meal and looking disconnected

Knowing the rules of etiquette can help avoid feeling uncomfortable around gatherings. Credit: Getty Images/Cat Alley

Sarah is from Morocco and has lived in Australia for 15 years. She says other taboo issues, like inquiring about personal finances, are not uncommon in some Arab cultures.

She adds that it is acceptable to ask people you have just met about their marital status, whether or not they have children, and why.
“If a couple has been married for more than 9 months and the baby isn’t there, people ask… ‘why?’ ‘Is there a problem?’ …and I think that’s just so inappropriate here,” Sarah burst out laughing.

“They even ask who his doctor is, or [suggest] She should change doctors!

The importance of etiquette when looking for a job

Not knowing the unspoken rules of etiquette can also present barriers for migrants in the workplace or when looking for a job.
Fabiola Campbell has been in Australia for 18 years. Originally from Venezuela, she founded Professional Migrant Women in 2019.

“The aim of the organization was to bridge the gap between migration and professional employment for women, with the understanding that there were many unemployed or underemployed professional women. These women lacked neither skills nor experience, what they lacked was an understanding of how the recruitment process works here in Australia.

    Establishment guide: a group of three people seated at a library table

Networking etiquette is crucial when looking for a job or in the professional workplace. Credit: Getty Images/Kosamtu

Ms. Campbell’s network empowers foreign women looking to break into the Australian job market, through a mentorship program.

“They learn how to market themselves, identify their value, but also develop a narrative consistent with how jobs are found here in Australia.”

This also falls under the broad label umbrella. Ms. Campbell thinks cultural differences can become a trap for migrant professionals, as networking and etiquette is about building good relationships.

There are some things you learn the hard way. Some people, perhaps because of their culture, want to be seen as taking the initiative, but can come across as a bit pushy.

Fabiola Campbell, Founder of Migrant Professional Women

Ms. Campbell says a good strategy when networking is to not intrude on others and to respectfully ask for their consent to connect professionally beforehand. Also, let them talk first when you meet.
“Give them the opportunity to tell their story and for you to learn from them. Maybe you can ask, ‘How did you get your first job? How did you come to work in this industry? Try to make the conversation enjoyable for the other person, but you can also learn from it.
One of Ms Campbell’s top tips for avoiding offense is to regularly use polite phrases such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. However, do not say these words repeatedly, as it may be too much or “exaggerated”.
Settlement guide: A man and a woman struggling with miscommunication

In some cultures, constantly apologizing or saying “thank you” are signs of polite behavior. In Australia however, these phrases must be used frequently, but not repeatedly. Credit: Getty Images/RRice1981

“I explain to people that English is not my first language, that even if I try to convey a message with good intentions, it will not necessarily pass that way,” she explains.

She adds that you can learn the intricacies of the English language and Australia’s preferred communication styles by asking for feedback.

I ask people if they feel offended or if they feel uncomfortable, let me know what they think. In this way, I can improve my communication while conveying the intended message.

Etiquette instructor Amanda King advises that in social or business situations, being on time is very important. If you’re running late for a gathering or meeting, let your host know at least 15-20 minutes in advance. Also, be sure to present yourself clearly and confidently to others and maintain eye contact.
Ms Campbell also wants migrants to feel comfortable, as many have experience dealing with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

“Most people in Australia have contact with migrants and especially migrants with English as a second language. They can understand that some people don’t think so, but they may not have the necessary language skills to communicate things the right way,” concludes Ms. Campbell.