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Business Etiquette

By Amy MacMillan

There's a proper way to do everything--from paying for lunch, to making introductions, to schmoozing at a cocktail party. Not only do manners matter, but they're easy to learn and simple to practice every single day.

You are always being judged and you have to learn how to act accordingly. -Hilka Klinkenberg, Etiquette International

The young man at the business lunch daringly flouted the rules, tucked his napkin into his belt, and proceeded to eat his meal. This tiny breach of etiquette went unnoticed until he stood up and walked around the restaurant--with the napkin still tucked in his belt!

Perhaps it wasn't the worst meal faux pas ever, but it didn't slip by his recent dining companion, etiquette expert Rosanne Thomas, president of Boston-based Protocol Advisors Inc.

Your doctoral degree, 150 I.Q., and your father's Wall Street connections won't get you anywhere in life if you chew food with your mouth open.

"Manners matter," says Hilka Klinkenberg, president and founder of Etiquette International in New York. Not only do they matter, but they are easy to learn and simple to practice every single day. "You are always being judged and you have to learn how to act accordingly," says Klinkenberg, who works with business leaders and executives who want to polish their etiquette.

Where have all the manners gone?
Manners have gone the way of the traditional family meal in recent years. "Everybody talks about Gen X or Gen Y...I talk about the 'McManners Generation,'" Klinkenberg says.

Some manners experts blame the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family for the current state of etiquette confusion. "Many people who came into the workplace in the last 10 years came from dual-income families," Klinkenberg notes. "Parents didn't spend the time drilling basic manners and courtesies into their children because they wanted quality time with them."

The good news is that it's never too late to learn civility.

And, even if you weren't raised in a barn, you may not realize that social etiquette, based on gender and chivalry, is not the same as business etiquette, which is based on hierarchy. Here are some basic pointers to remember in business charm.

Don't bear hug the boss
It's not debatable, Thomas says. In the American business culture, the handshake is the only appropriate greeting form, regardless of gender. Some pointers: the grip should be neither too tight nor too limp; pump once or twice from the elbow; avoid the "finger-tip" handshake (men sometimes just extend their fingertips to women); and stay away from the "double-fisted" handshake favored by the clergy, which could be construed as a "power play" mechanism in the business world. Keep your thumb up, and you can't go wrong, Klinkenberg says.

Kissing is the kiss of death in business--don't do it. If you sense you are about to be kissed, get your hand out fast, lock your elbow at 90 degrees, smile, and utter your greeting with a broad smile.

Note: In some non-traditional business settings such as the art world, or Hollywood, there may be no way to avoid the flagrant "air kiss," or its cousin, the "double air kiss." "Every industry has its own culture, and you have to know what the norms are," Klinkenberg says. "Your behavior and your appearance have to be appropriate to the environment."

Pleased to meetcha
Introductions in the business world are based on hierarchy, Klinkenberg says. Persons of lesser importance are introduced to persons of greater importance, regardless of gender. It goes like this: "Mr. or Ms. Big Shot, I'd like to introduce Mr. or Ms. Lesser Big Shot." But always remember that the client is higher than anyone else in the business organization, and takes precedence over "Mr. Big Shot," when it comes to introductions.

Dietary decorum
It will never be a sticky situation when the paycheck arrives if you remember this one rule, according to Klinkenberg: whomever benefits from the business association pays. "So whether I invite my client or my client invites me, I pay," she says. If there's no clear beneficiary, the person who extends the invitation pays. One exception is when your client invites you to a private club; in this case, plan to reciprocate at a later date.

The tools of the trade
When it comes to silverware, work from the outside in. Start with the knife, fork or spoon that is farthest from your plate. The salad fork is always on the outermost left. The dessert spoon and fork are above the plate. Upon the meal's completion, don't push your plate away, but rather lay your fork and knife diagonally across your plate. Also, remember these tips:

  • The meal begins when the host places his or her napkin on his lap; this is your cue to do the same
  • Do not season your food before you taste it; your fellow diners might suspect you also make hasty business decisions
  • Do not slurp your soup, and do not blow on it if it's too hot to eat
  • Do not ask for a doggy bag when you are a guest
  • Do not drink too much
  • When the meal is over, place your napkin on the table to the right of your plate

Good cheer
The company cocktail party is an oxymoron, because it's never a social situation, say the etiquette experts. There are a few things to remember here. One is, don't drink too much. "Just because there's a party and alcohol, never forget that it's a business event," Thomas warns.

Small talk is a great thing to master, but stay away from the "Big Three" topics of religion, sex, and politics. Stick with tried-and-true topics like the weather, sports, books, movies, and restaurants. If you are in a situation where you are not introduced, simply stick your hand out during a pause in the conversation, and introduce yourself, Klinkenberg says. When you are ready to move on and circulate, end each conversation politely with a handshake.

Email etiquette
Both Klinkenberg and Thomas emphasize that company email is never private. "With email, we tend to get a little casual in our grammar or spelling, and we shouldn't," Thomas notes. Use proper salutations; don't use capital letters (the equivalent to shouting), keep emails brief, and address only one topic per email.

Opinions vary widely as to whether corporate America's "dressing down" has caused a slackening in business tone and office courtesy. "Your whole demeanor is affected by the way you dress," Hilkenberg says. Even if your office has a casual dress policy, it's no excuse to wear wrinkled khakis, frayed collars, or scuffed shoes, Thomas says. Although she concedes it's tough to build a top-notch wardrobe when you are saddled with student loans, it's the most important time in your career to look good. "The way we dress at the outset of our careers can have permanent implications." Buy the very best you can afford, and stick with neutral, understated colors, she says.

Manners are not hard to learn, and if you aren't sure how to act, get a book, take a course, or get a mentor to give you some honest feedback, Klinkenberg says.

None of this is difficult, she adds. "It just requires an awareness and constant practice."

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