Norine Dresser's Multicultural Manners was designed a handy guidebook for white, middle class Americans who have to deal with others of a different color, religion or ethnicity, either in big cities in the United States or overseas. Written in a breezy, informal style, its first section of New Rules of Communication has sections on body language, classroom situations, child-rearing practices, clothing, colors, food, time, verbal expressions, prejudices, gifts and health practices, all in the form of vignettes of various embarrassing situations. She has even experienced such incidents herself, when she was waiting at the checkout line in a cafeteria and tapped a Chinese man on the shoulder, asking him where the tea was. He became indignant and stated "I don't drink tea," probably because he disliked the stereotype about all Asians drinking tea.[footnoteRef:1] At least, this is what Dresser assumes, although he may simply have disliked being tapped on the shoulder by a stranger. She also mentions a visit to a Hmong family, and knowing that Asians believed that wearing shoes indoors was bad luck, she took off her sandals. To her surprise, she was they only barefoot person in the room, but "they thought it was funny. I did, too."[footnoteRef:2] Her book has many situations like these, based on her columns for the Los Angeles Times, and devotes the majority of its space to difference between Western and Asian cultures, although it also pays considerable attention to individuals from other societies that North Americans might encounter, especially Latin America and the Middle East. [1: Norine Dresser. Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century, Revised Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005, p. 1.] [2: Dresser, p. 1.]
Her audience is not just those who travel internationally as tourists or for business and work, but also members of the military or teachers and police officers in large cities who will encounter immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Dresser makes certain assumptions about these Americans that may or may not be true, such as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan whose main goal is supposedly to "win the peace" or police officers who want to "interact more effectively with new populations from East Africa" and other places.[footnoteRef:3] She claims to have good intentions beyond simply selling advice, noting that "holocausts and ethnic cleansings are monstrosities of people who refuse to accept those unlike themselves in religious practice, language or color."[footnoteRef:4] To be sure, history is full of examples like these, from Bosnia to Rwanda to Cambodia, although advice books do not tend to be very effective in preventing genocidal conflicts based on profound ethnic, religious and political differences, or cynical and corrupt leaders who always exploit these for their own ends. Many religious people in history -- and today for that matter -- have also agreed with Cardinal John Henry Newman that those in error have no rights, and that heretics will spend eternity in hell. Fundamentalists in all major religions still believe that, although they probably do not read many multicultural advice books. Nor do ethnic cleansers and those who hate other nationalities, tribes and races for historical reasons -- or simply because they learned how to hate in childhood. For that matter, almost everyone has inherited certain prejudices and biases in early life that continue to have an unconscious effect on their thought and actions, even when the more rational parts of their minds caution that these ideas are false. In the U.S., those who believe in spite of all evidence that Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya or Indonesia are not likely to read Dresser's book, and would very likely dismiss it as more 'liberal political correctness' if they did. [3: Dresser, p. 2.] [4: Dresser, p. 2.]
In the United States today, about one person in nine is foreign born, and at least 1.3 million new immigrants arrive every year. Needless to say, there are millions of white, native-born Americans who are hardly pleased by this, especially in the current depression, and would prefer to close the borders, end immigration and deport anyone who is in the country illegally. Issues like these play in every election, and the country has no shortage of politicians who always exploit them for their own gain. Even so, especially in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, "we all deal those who are culturally different in the workplace, the neighborhood, and perhaps even in our own families."[footnoteRef:5] Dresser maintains that her book will help build bridges and facilitate effective communications between the white majority and ethnic immigrant groups. She does not imagine that books like hers will end racism or ethnocentrism, but hopes it will create more "respect for diversity."[footnoteRef:6] American conservatives will always attack multiculturalism, and regard it as "a dirty word -- the "M" word," and insist that foreigners adapt to American culture and folkways.[footnoteRef:7] People in other countries often think the same think about foreigners, immigrants and outsiders in their midst. [5: Dresser, p. 2.] [6: Dresser, p. 3.] [7: Dresser, p. 3.]
If liberal and multicultural ideals will not sway some readers, Dresser points out that business should be aware of all the practical and pragmatic benefits of learning to deal with those of different colors, religions and ethnicities. Companies that have more "information about other people's folkways can improve human relations" and will also have more successful business dealings.[footnoteRef:8] J.C. Penney's started distributing Lunar New Year prints to its Asian customers, for example, and insurance companies mailed red good luck envelopes. Businesses find that responding "to cultural differences of customers, clients, employees, patients, students, neighbors, and family pays well"[footnoteRef:9] Dresser writes that she is attempting to explain all these differences with stereotypes or generalities, although given the superficial nature of this kind of book, these are unavoidable. She agrees that "no blanket statement can apply to everyone," although they probably do to the majority of people in any given ethnic or religious group.[footnoteRef:10] Moreover, each group will have many differences based on income, education and social class, although this is not the main emphasis of Dresser's book. She also had to be very "forthright in differences in gender issues for people coming from many countries outside the United States," particularly for those from Asia, Africa and the Middle East where women do not have equal social, political and legal rights.[footnoteRef:11] Since she has studied anthropology and folkways at the university level, she is aware of the ideals of academic rigor and objectivity, and even though these may not apply to a mass market book written for popular consumption and as broad an audience as possible, she attempts to "see the validity and function of cultures without value judgments."[footnoteRef:12] None of the advice she gives on the basis of these vignettes is absolute, especially not for immigrants who have been in the U.S. For a long time and become partially acculturated. [8: Dresser, p. 3.] [9: Dreseer, p. 4.] [10: Dresser, p. 4.] [11: Dresser, p. 4.] [12: Dresser, p. 4.]
In dealing with other countries and cultures, certain commonalities in attitudes toward education and genders roles in Asia, Africa and the Middle East stand out as very distinctive compared to the United States. Most of these places have a more traditional, authoritarian education system than the U.S., for example, in which the status of the teacher is far above the students, who are not permitted to question, disobey or disagree with their instructors. Corporal punishment is still common in these education systems, and in child-rearing practices in general, while rote memorization and preparation for standardized tests are far more important than individual self-expression, imagination and creativity. In Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America, equality and democracy do not exist in the classroom. Nor do they exist in the family, particularly in the treatment of women and children, and these societies are still more authoritarian and patriarchal in sexuality and gender relation than the United States. Intimacy across age and gender lines is more restricted and overall manners are more formal, especially in Asia, where hugging, kissing and bodily contact between strangers is frowned upon. In many other areas, however, such as food, gifts, colors, holidays, clothing, body language, prejudices and hand gestures, the variety among countries, cultures and religions is so great that global generalizations are simply impossible. Many of these differences are specific to Muslims in the Middle East and Central Asia, for example, or the Confucian cultures in East Asia or American societies, which are all unique in their own ways and also distinctive from North America.
Dresser's book does provide very useful advice for North Americans who need to know that certain types of gestures and body language that are common in the U.S. will give extreme offense in other cultures, especially those with greater distinctions in age, status, gender and social class that the modern West. In many Asian cultures, handling money directly is rude, which is why…