Monday, April 13, 2009

Business etiquette for the clueless

Here's an article I wrote a few months ago and just rewrote. Hope you like it.

Things not to do with your mouth in a meeting
by Liz Craig

The young man was lounging on a park bench, arms draped casually across the top. Just as I walked by, he opened his mouth wide and enjoyed a leisurely yawn right in my face. My reaction: disgust and annoyance. My opinion of that young man: low. Was the young man being intentionally crude, or was he just plain ignorant? All I knew of him was how his tongue and teeth looked, but his manner of showing them to me gave me the impression that he was rude and uneducated.

Isn’t it unfair to judge a person’s character by one inconsiderate act? Perhaps. But we do it all the time. At the grocery store, on the phone, and especially, at work -- where the consequences of inconsiderate or offensive behavior, a.k.a. poor etiquette, can have serious repercussions.

Lately, it has become clear that the rules of common etiquette are not commonly known, particularly among people under 40. As a result, companies and grad schools have begun training younger people how to act civilly and politely in meetings, presentations, and client lunches and dinners.

Unfortunately, gone are the days when training films titled "How to Have a Family Dinner" advised adults and children of the basics: no unwashed hands, no elbows on the table, no unpleasant or controversial conversational topics while dining, no talking with your mouth full, no curling your left arm prison-style around your dinner plate while madly shoveling large chunks of food into your mouth as if you were in a county fair eating contest.

The problem is that Americans scorn rules that inhibit their natural behavior. Why the heck should I have to cover my mouth when I yawn? And why shouldn't I rest my elbows on the table? In the first case, because nobody wants a view of your uvula, and in the second, because in client dinners, it tags you as a classless bumpkin.

As Paula Williams says on the Ravenwerks website, etiquette is more than just selecting the right fork to eat the salad. "Being relaxed, friendly and considerate is what etiquette is all about."

While “relaxed” is a subjective term that easily can be misinterpreted, the "considerate" part is a good one to take to heart. If you are considerate of other people's sensitivities, you probably won't remove a gob of gristly meat from your mouth and place it on the edge of your plate unless you shield the process from view with your napkin. You won't pick your teeth at the table. You won't gulp your water with audible "glugs." You won't talk over another table companion or start an argument that might upset digestive processes. Or kill a business relationship.

Of course, there is much more to good business etiquette than table manners. There is phone etiquette, day-to-day etiquette to practice with colleagues, and etiquette when dealing with people of other genders and nationalities. That’s just for starters.

There are many technical things to learn about business etiquette, probably too many to remember at all times. But if we can keep "consideration" top of mind, we won't go far wrong. If you feel insecure about what to do and not to do in public, you can consult a wealth of etiquette resources at the bookstore, at the library, or on the Web (See titles of three recommended books below). While reading, you may discover interesting sidelights, such as this: the reason knives are set on the table with their blades toward the plate is that in this way, Medieval diners let their companions know they did not plan to stab them to death. Oh, by the way, stabbing dinner partners is considered poor form. But you probably knew that.

To learn more, try these books, available at

Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work by Jacqueline Whitmore (also available on audio)

Business Etiquette For Dummies by Sue Fox

The Etiquette Edge: The Unspoken Rules for Business Success by Beverly Langford

©2009 Liz Craig

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