Monday, October 24, 2016

Culture - the "pass the salt" incident

I was incredibly fortunate to go to lunch last week with Kate Falanga, Parimala Hariprasad, and Stephen Janaway who were all in town for the amazing WeTest conference.

As you can imagine, there was an incredible amount of "shop talk" about testing, but a small incident, which proved to be thought provoking.  Food arrived.  I needed salt.  It was on the other side of the table.  Controversial!

So I asked Kate if she'd pass the salt, immediately wishing I hadn't.  For a moment, she waited for me to take it from her hand, before putting it down on the table.  I realised me waiting for her to put it down might have seemed a little rude, so explained myself.

"In England", then eyed up Stephen, who's from a different part, "or at least in the North of England, it's considered to be bad manners to take the salt from someone's hand".  I thought back to being childed by my grandmother (we called her "Grandee"), a veritable clone of the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, right down to the rules of serving tea.  [By the way, even workmen were served tea in china cups, due to her strict NO MUGS rule]

Supposedly salt was linked to warding off the devil, so to take it from someone's hand invited ill fortune.

This intrigued Parimala, where in India it's considered polite to put either salt or a knife down, rather than to pass directly.  Similar to me, she's raised up to consider how spilling salt is considered to be ... well she called it "inauspicious", I went "doom".

Representing as we did America, India, the UK and New Zealand, this led to a lot of discussion about culture, and how as a international community we need to not take lightly or assume someone from another part of the rules has our same values.

When something as trivial as passing the salt has different rules of ettiquette for different parts of the world, it's a reminder to take nothing for granted.  When talking internationally, it's always good to talk about our relative cultures - what's considered rude, what's considered polite - to avoid misunderstandings.  This is something we should be doing, whether we're talking about ourselves in a multinational setting, or about ourselves within a cross-discipline setting.  Sharing of our values, helps to form a common understanding of core values.


  1. Thank you. I heard this before, but never looked to go deep and understand the culture influences.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Mike
    I like the parallel to understanding a team members 'bad manners' in delivery practises
    They may be due to a chiding Dowager Countess of a practise manager they encountered in their 'tech childhood'

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