Etiquette...what do you think of when you hear that word? Emily Post? Miss Manners? Or
confusion because the do's and don'ts of acceptable social behavior we learned as children
don't mesh with today's business environment?
The business world our parents knew was predominantly a homogenous, Eurocentric, male
environment where everyone innately understood the code of conduct.
Now, the business arena has changed. The civil rights movement. The mass entry of women
into the work place in the 70's. And it continues to evolve with passage of the Americans
with Disabilities Act and globalization of the economy. To successfully navigate the
hazardous waters of the business arena of the 90's and communicate successfully with all
the diverse elements in that environment, mastering business etiquette has become an
Let's examine the underlying differences between social and business etiquette and some
of the social rules that need adjustment and we'll take a fresh look at some of the social
rules that should have made the transition to the workplace, but seem to have slipped
through the cracks.
BUSINESS VS. SOCIAL ETIQUETTE:
The most important difference between business and social etiquette is that social
etiquette is based on chivalry, on the concept that the little lady has to be coddled and
protected, whereas business etiquette has military origins. It is based on hierarchy and
So how does that affect behavior? First of all, gender was not an issue in the office
30 or 40 years ago, and gender has no place in business etiquette today. But, and it's a
big but, women are no longer ancillary to the men. Men and women are now treated as peers.
You hold the door open for a woman if you would hold it open for a man in the same
situation. Doors are held open for superiors, for clients, for peers following close on
your heels and for anyone who is loaded down with packages, regardless of your gender or
theirs. But, if it's a revolving door, you would precede all those people into the door to
get it moving, then wait on the other side.
Men do not jam up elevators by trying to let the woman out first, unless of course she
happens to be your CEO or your client. Whoever is closest to the elevator doors, man or
woman, exits first.
A woman will not be perceived as a competent professional if she acts or is treated
according to chivalry. A man who treats a female client or colleague in a chivalrous
manner will be perceived as condescending and create hostility. In the current economic
climate, we cannot afford to offend.
Those peers with disabilities must also be treated with the same respect accorded any
professional. In addition, there are a few additional rules that must be learned to
accommodate their physical needs, like not raising your voice to be heard by a person who
is blind or putting someone's crutches out of the way and out of their reach. Employing a
bit of common sense will provide you with the appropriate behavior. Otherwise, ask. People
with disabilities prefer to be asked for guidance rather than deal with that embarrassed
evasion from those who are discomfited by the disability. The new Golden Rule for everyone
is to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated.
Let's look at a few other areas where business and social etiquette differ.
First, introductions. Introductions are one of the most important aspects of our daily
life, but few people know how to make them properly. In the social arena, men are
introduced to women. In the business arena, the person of lesser importance, regardless of
gender, is introduced to the person of greater importance, regardless of gender. But,
always remember that the name of the person being introduced is mentioned last, the person
to whom the introduction is made is mentioned first. The rule, then, is "Mr. or Ms.
Greater Authority, I'd like to introduce Mr. or Ms. Lesser Authority." I'll repeat
that, "Mr. or Ms. Greater Authority, Mr. or Ms. Lesser Authority." But, who
holds the highest position in any organization? The client. The client is more important
than anyone in your organization, even if the client holds a lesser title than the
executive in your firm.
HANDSHAKES & NAME TAGS:
The accepted physical greeting to accompany introductions is the handshake. Kissing
entered the business arena with women, and it has caused more confusion than any other
aspect of male-female etiquette. Men and women must be treated equally in the workplace;
you can't shake hands with one and kiss the other. Women should learn to greet even their
good friends with a handshake if they don't want to send confusing signals.
Men have an advantage in that their fathers often took them aside as boys and said,
"Son, let me teach you how to shake hands like a man." Unfortunately, few of our
mothers took the girls aside to teach us to shake hands like a woman. So, let's take a
moment to learn to shake hands like a business person. Humans have webs, just like ducks.
To shake hands properly, we must keep that thumb up and touch webs before wrapping the
fingers around the other person's hand. Let's all stand up and try it with the person on
By the way, social etiquette decreed that the woman be the one to extend her hand
first. You will still find the occasional matron or woman from another culture who is
taken aback if the man extends his hand. In the business arena, it doesn't matter who
extends the hand first, but the one who does takes control of the situation, takes matters
in hand if you will.
While you shook hands, did you notice the other person's name tag? While it may feel
easier or look better in the mirror to place it on the left, the proper placement of the
name tag is high on the right shoulder. There is a simple reason for this. When shaking
hands, your eye follows the line of your arm to the other person's right side. By placing
the tag on the right, it's easy to read the name while shaking hands. If the tag is on the
left, you are forced to scan across the body to read the tag, an awkward and potentially
insulting gesture. Why don't you make sure your name tag is on the right and let's try
shaking hands again. See how much easier it becomes to read the person's name?
Businesses can no longer function without telephones. Yet few of us learned the proper
way to place and answer calls. At home, we answered with "hello". In business,
in addition to the greeting, it's necessary to identify ourself and the company or
department. In other words, you would say "Good afternoon, Etiquette International,
Hilka Klinkenberg speaking." or "Protocol Office. This is Hilka. How may I help
One of the cardinal sins of answering the phone, and it happens millions of times a
day, is to ask "Who's calling?" The implication is that calls are being
screened, and rudely at that. Be sure that the person answering your phone uses the
correct response, "May I tell so-and-so who's calling?" That's "may I
Few of us can get our work done without occasionally having calls screened. But, to do
so without insulting someone, have the person answering announce that you are unavailable,
then ask for the caller's name and message. If the caller is someone you do want to speak
with, the secretary can say, "Oh, one moment. Here she is," without even telling
a white lie.
The easiest way to avoid having someone ask you "Who's calling?" and also one
of the better ways to assure you'll get through to your party, is to announce yourself at
the beginning of your call. "Hello, this is Hilka Klinkenberg from Etiquette
International. May I please speak to Bob Wals." It's amazing how effective that
little introduction can be. By stating your name, you send a subliminal message that you
have a right to speak to the person you are trying to reach rather than arousing suspicion
by being evasive about your identity.
The author Fran Lebowitz said, "As a teenager you're in the last stage of your
life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you." Telephone calls are
an intrusion into someone's workday. At the beginning of the call, ask if the person has a
few minutes to talk to you. Forget those old bromides about making small talk and building
rapport before getting to the point of your call. Know why you're calling before you ever
dial, and get to the point. Wasting someone's time is rude. Surely all of you remember mom
yelling at you to get off the phone when you were teenagers. Well, brevity is one lesson
we should all remember from mom for polished telephone etiquette.
While the homes of the future might have all sorts of electronic gadgetry, speaker
phones, cellular phones, e-mail and FAX machines were not common household gadgets when we
grew up. But, they are a necessity and a frequent source of irritation in business today.
Here are some ground rules for more effective use of these electronic annoyances or
conveniences, depending on your point of view.
Most people hate talking to someone using a speaker phone. Use it only to continue the
conversation while doing something directly related to that call, and then only after
you've asked for permission. If this is a frequent occurrence, you may want to invest in a
headset. Then you won't have to worry when you use a speaker phone where other people are
in a position to eavesdrop.
Cellular phones are emergency tools ideal in regions where phones are not found on
every street corner. Use them to notify someone you're running late or when you're working
on a deal that could explode in your face without immediate and constant communication.
Don't use them as a status symbol or as a cure for loneliness while pounding the pavement.
Car phones are great if you spend more time in your car than in your office. But, don't
make an issue of the fact. That means no comments about traffic to subtly let the other
person know you have one, unless you're calling to explain your tardiness. Never call if
you're about to enter a tunnel or underpass.
E-mail is a quick, informal way to send a message as long as you retain the same
boundaries of propriety you would use if dealing with the person face-to-face. If, for
instance, you always address the CEO by surname in person, don't switch to the first name
when sending e-mail. Also, avoid jokes and those little punctuation faces. They are
unprofessional and most likely to be misconstrued. If your statement needs an explanation
in parentheses like [joke] or [ha-ha], rephrase or eliminate it. And, don't send a message
all in caps; it's the electronic equivalent of shouting.
Never tie up someone's line or waste their paper by sending an unsolicited FAX unless
it is urgent. And never, ever, send a resume by FAX unless it was requested. When you send
a FAX, always include a cover letter stating the total number of pages, the date, who it
is to, who it is from and your telephone and fax number in case there are problems with
Another of mom's lessons to remember is to write thank you notes, and by hand. You can
never send too many of them, and it is a gesture that will be remembered. They need not be
long and flowery; short and sincere is a very effective style.
Writing business letters is a skill in which most professional people need some
polishing. The casual meandering of a personal letter is not appreciated in business. You
can waste a person's time with your letters as easily as with a phone call. Get rid of
those pat phrases at the beginning of a letter like "thank you for taking time out of
your busy schedule to see me" or "it was a pleasure talking with you on the
telephone yesterday," that have become trite with overuse. Let the person know you
were really listening by starting your letter with a specific reference to something the
person said or did. For instance, "Your comments about the IBM-Apple merger during
our meeting this morning were certainly thought-provoking. I appreciate your
Another annoying phrase, "If you have any questions, please feel free to call and
I'll be happy to answer them," appears at the end of too many letters. A simple,
"please call if you have any questions or need more additional information," is
cleaner and clearer.
My pet peeve in business correspondence is a particularly American habit of addressing
someone by first name in the salutation and signing the letter with your full name. The
rule is, if you address someone by first name, you sign with your first name or you're
talking down to that person. If you're worried he or she won't know who you are, then you
either haven't been specific enough in your letter or you don't know the person well
enough to use first names. Anyway, your name should be typed in full under your signature
in a business letter.
Business stationery is for business use; personal stationery is for personal use. If,
because of your position you do a lot of community service work, the ideal solution is to
have the business stationery printed with your name and the company address, but without
the company name or logo.
ETIQUETTE IN THE OFFICE:
As a confirmed night owl, I used to stumble into the kitchen as a child and fall into
my chair at the breakfast table, only to be reprimanded by my parents and sent out to
enter again because I didn't have the courtesy to greet them upon entering. This is one
lesson executives should have learned from their mothers. The number one complaint about
bosses by their secretaries is that they are ignored until the boss gives them their first
assignment. It is rude not to greet people when you first enter an office, whether you're
the mail person or the CEO. Make it a habit and you will help make the workplace a more
The way people behave when they are in someone else's office or when others visit their
office could have benefitted from our mother's training because the behavior is no
different that of a host or guest in the home. When you call on someone you are the guest
in that person's office, and when they call on you, you are the host. Simple as that. But,
what does this host-guest behavior involve.
First, a guest is punctual and does not pay surprise visits. Guests also do not make
themselves more comfortable in someone else's office than the host. And they don't take
over someone else's space by spreading papers all over the person's desk. And, they don't
place a handbag or briefcase on it. Guests also do not overstay their welcome. When your
scheduled time is up, don't assume the host's schedule is so flexible it can accommodate
you for another hour. Reschedule if you need more time. Believe me, if the host is really
interested in what you're selling and has the time to hear more, he or she will let you
The host's responsibility is to greet the guest and to make the visitor feel
comfortable. If you're busy, have your secretary go out to reception to bring the visitor
to your office. Then, get up and come around from the desk to shake hands with the person.
Indicate where you would like the person to sit. The host leads the visitor through the
visit. When the meeting is over, the host is responsible for bringing the meeting to a
close, summarizing what was covered and what action is to be taken. Then the host escorts
the visitor to the elevator or out of the office. Never leave visitors to find their own
way. Not only is it rude, it jeopardizes security.
Many business meetings take place outside the office over a meal. But, again confusion
exists over two matters; first, what meal to use for what purpose and second how to handle
the tab gracefully.
Each business meal has its own reason for being and it is never about food. Each
business meal also has an acceptable time frame.
Power breakfasts are ideal for urgent business, to review an event happening that day
or to meet with a person who doesn't take lunch. Schedule 45 minutes to 1 hour. But, it's
advisable to have a good reason to get someone up early to meet with you.
Allow two hours for a power lunch. Lunch is the ideal meal to entertain clients or to
establish business contacts. Lunches are also the least compromising male/female dining
situation. Just make sure you don't wait until dessert to bring up your agenda; the time
to start discussing business is after the appetizer has been served.
Tea is the new power meal, an ideal time to become better acquainted with someone with
whom you want to establish a business relationship. It is also a civilized time to discuss
matters outside the office without breaking up the middle of the day. As people become
more concerned about alcohol consumption, it becomes an ideal alternative to meeting for
Business dinners should never be the first meal with a client unless that person is
from out of town or has specifically requested it. Respect the client's personal time.
Discussing business at dinner can also be tricky if you don't get down to it before the
second drink arrives. Dinners are ideal to cement existing relationships or as a special
treat for the client.
The rule for paying the tab in business is clear: whoever benefits from the business
association pays, regardless of gender. So, whether I invite my client or my client
invites me, I pay. If there is no clear beneficiary, the person who extends the invitation
pays. There are several ways to handle the check so it never becomes an issue, all of
which are covered in my book. Unfortunately, we don't have time to go into them all today.
But, ideally, try to avoid having the check brought to the table. If you're a woman
hosting a male client, put the burden of payment onto your company to avoid raising that
old social standard that has the man paying the tab. The best time to clarify that you are
hosting is when you extend the invitation by saying, "I'd like you to be my company's
guest at lunch on..."
One time you don't even try to pick up the check is if your client has invited you to a
private club. Instead, reciprocate at a later date.
Whether you're an entrepreneur or independent consultant, whether you're looking for a
job or whether you're fortunate enough still to be employed by a downsized corporate
America, the 90's are competitive times. The new reality is that your every action in the
business arena of the 90's has become more visible and telling without those layers of
management to pass the buck on to or the cushion of a large support staff to make you look
good. Each of you now needs to present yourself with confidence and authority to succeed.
Outclassing the competition is the name of the game if you want to survive the current
There is a major psychological power in our behavioral choices. Because we transmit and
receive on both a subliminal and on a conscious level, our body language and our behavior
play a critical role in determining how others respond to us. Actions speak louder than
words, and we can create specific responses with specific choices. By understanding
business etiquette and utilizing this mode of communication, we can use it to great
advantage in our business and our sales strategies.
An article by Diana McLellan in The Washingtonian stated that polished social
graces can get you where you're going faster than a speeding BMW. Executives are expected
to assimilate these finer points of etiquette along with the subtleties of their business
because good manners grease the wheels of society.
By remembering your mother's admonitions to mind your P's and Q's, by remembering the
adjustments you have to make in your behavior for the new etiquette of the 90's, and by
remembering the underlying difference between social and business etiquette, you will
improve your P & L. Good manners are good business!