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At the end of October, without fail, there will be public outcry about a Halloween costume that one of a number of notables or celebrities wore for the Hollywood party circuit. In fact, many publicists in Los Angeles, California intensely dislike the holiday for just that reason. The most common offense has nothing to do with brand names or wardrobe malfunctions; instead it has more to do with a cultural insensitivity and appropriation that we hope would be avoided by now. If Hollywood notables with publicists can’t seem to get it right, how does the everyday professional keep it classy during the office party?

Here are 3 things to consider when selecting a costume:

  1. Culture is not a costume. Respect includes the fundamental point of valuing other cultures. While traditional clothing from another country may seem “costume-y,” take into consideration the origin of the clothing and the value it has to that culture. In many cultures, each stitch, sandal, makeup application, or earring have significant meanings cultivated for distinct and important purposes. Portraying this in any manner that lessens that initial significance can be dehumanizing, particularly if the traditional clothing is altered. While it may seem cute to you, it is a deep part of someone else’s legacy and culture.  
  2. Culture is contextual. Ask yourself a couple questions:
    1. What does the costume mean to me? Why do I want to wear it?
    2. Could my costume be misunderstood because I don’t understand its origin or cultural context?  

Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, do a self-check and determine if your desired costume is indeed an appropriate choice or if you should reconsider.

  1. Culture Matters It is our responsibility, both personally and professionally, to think about others as we make decisions that might offend or have a negative impact. We owe it not just to our direct colleagues but to the global society we live in to represent ourselves in a way that respects cultural values and demonstrates cultural competence.  

Take it upon yourself to make a costume decision that will show your creativity without being insensitive to another culture. Halloween is meant to be fun, so enjoy. Be scary, be silly, be the life of the party, and keep it culturally appropriate this October 31st.


Sharon Schweitzer and Sophie Echeverry co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre and the Intercultural Communication Institute, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.

Sophie Echeverry is the corporate marketing manager and event coordinator at Access to Culture. Born and raised in Colombia, she’s a 2018 graduate with a B.B.A. in International Business and Marketing from Hult International Business School in San Francisco, CA. Connect with her on LinkedIn.