The art of business etiquette has largely dwindled as we have spent the last two years in isolation. But now, we are traveling again, meeting clients and teams in person, and going to lunches and dinners. The lack of practice is causing a lot of people anxiety about how to act, and that anxiety is amplified in business settings. How do we carry ourselves with class and walk with confidence (for some, in HEELS?) What fork goes with what again? This post will break it down and feature a great YouTube playlist you can watch to get all the basics back down whether you are in business meetings, at client dinners, or at your office happy hour.
This post will cover in-person etiquette, based on this playlist I have created on Youtube featuring videos from Jamila Musayeva. She is an international etiquette expert who wrote the aptly named book, Etiquette, the Least You Need to Know. covers a wide range of topics from how to carry a handbag to how to shake hands. I have curated the most relevant videos for a business setting and pulled out the most relevant tips below. You can access my curated playlist of her content on the playlist the DAOFitLife Channel here:
This blog post is 1 of a series of 2 covering etiquette, and will focus on in-person experiences like handshakes, dining, and business meetings. Of course, digital interaction is hardly in the rearview. Even for those of us who are going back to traveling or being in the office, we see the unmistakable signs that the world has changed forever. People talking on zoom with the unmistakable fluorescent office background. Conference rooms featuring hybrid participation options. And of course, we still rely on emails primarily as a form of communication. Because that’s a really dense second topic, I have broken it up into a second post that will be featured in the next issue to complement this one.
I have also made a video where I summarize the key takeways that I learned from Jamila and other etiquette experts:
Having good posture and walking elegantly
Do you picture girls in finishing school walking with books on their heads when you read this? There is a reason why this actually was (may still be) a thing. Before you even make contact with a human being, there is an art to walking into a room. How you do so makes your first impression – which is always the most important one. Your walk says a lot more about you than you realize.
For best practices to achieve an elegant walk, practice the following:
- Your posture is everything. To achieve the proper posture, you need to have your shoulders down away from your ears, and a slight tuck in the pelvis. Endless hours sitting behind a computer will cause your shoulders to slump forward and your back to arch because of weaker core muscles.
- Show everyone your million-dollar necklace. No, of course you do not have one of those, but the idea as explained by prima ballerina Kathryn Morgan is that you want to act as if you have a beautiful necklace you want to show off – as a result you will keep your shoulders back and your chest high. This is a good practice for a lot of yoga and pilates movements
- The most important part of good posture and movement is the placement of your head. It’s the heaviest thing on your body, weighing at least 8-10 pounds. So if your head is too far forward or backward, your posture will suffer. In our smartphone addicted society, it is very likely that it is too far forward. Act as if there is a string pulling your neck up through the back of your head, like marionette.
- Swing your arms naturally (but not your hips). Not swinging your arms puts you right back in the famous Seinfeld episode where Elaine has a spat with a co-worker for pointing out this faux pas.
- A business setting is not the appropriate place for skinny heels or huge wedges. First it makes you walk awkwardly (Jamila has more on shoe etiquette here). A 1-3 inch heel is appropriate, and make sure you practice walking in the shoes before you actually wear them to the office.
It is also important to know how to walk in heels besides wearing the right heels. If you need a crash refresher course on how to walk in heels, you definitely want to check out this vlog from another etiquette expert, Anna Bey. Anna’s channel has a very entertaining theme of what “elegant ladies” do and to my chagrin I do not meet up to all of her standards! One huge tip that I learned is PRACTICE. Pull out a mirror and start practicing walking in a straight line in front of it. And wearing heels. Like everyhing with fitness, it gets easier the more you do it. This can be a matter of taking just 10 minutes on the weekend to practice a walk while you are streaming or waiting for laundry to dry. And it is a great way to get additional cardio.
Standing posture is equally as important (Jamila covers this in the following video). In many situations, you will be standing for a period of time in a group or one on one conversation. Keep your shoulders back, and your legs hip width apart. Avoid sinking into one hip or another. I personally like to keep my hands in a steeple position in front of my navel, or keeping my palms facing up, which shows receptiveness and openness.
Shaking Hands and greeting people
You are at your first company mixer, and meeting new people on the team (or maybe you are the new one). Or you finally made it to a conference where you are seeing clients and company leaders. We have not shaken hands in 2 years, but the trend is returning.This has been ingrained in most cultures since ancient Greek times, so thereis no reason to doubt it will be part of the norm again. Like with making an entrance how you shake hands and greet someone makes a very important impression.
- The first most important point is eye contact. You want to look at the person you are shaking hands with and smile, and hold their gaze as you shake hands. Looking at your hands or at the floor will make you seem unsure of yourself.
- Have a firm but not aggressive handshake. No “fingerellas” meaning just extending a few of your fingers, deadfish (limp handshakes), or bonecrushers (squeezing someone’s hand too tightly). 3-5 pumps will suffice; anything beyond that comes off aggressive; so does pulling the other person towards you. Also, be sensitive to the culture. In Europe and some Middle Eastern countries, a handshake is accompanied by 1 or 2 kisses on the cheek. In China and Hong Kong, handshakes are common but so are nods, and it is important for the younger person to offer a greeting first out of respect. In Japan, a bow is the norm instead of a handshake.
- Business cards: This also relates to the point about different cultures, but if someone gives you their business card, don’t just toss it in your bag or shove it in your pocket. In China for example, the card is received with both hands and the recipient keeps it in their hands until they walk away and then the card is tucked away in a safe place.
- Hands: We all wash our hands often, and you may choose to do so before this occasion. But dry them thoroughly; no one likes a clammy wet handshake. Use both the dryer and the paper towels. Rings: Especially if you are female, avoid wearing rings on the right hand, or switch rings to the left hand for the meet and greet. Because if you get a “bonecrusher,” that term could be literal for you.
- Stand up: If you are seated at a table and someone enters, stand up to shake their hands unless it is clearly impossible (like if you are at a crowded restaurant). Even in that case, make an effort to stand up slightly. This type of behavior is elegant and very much appreciated.
- What if you blank on a name? If you do not remember whether you have met the person before, a “Nice to see you!” or “How do you do” is a great way to deflect that.
Jamila covers the top tips for handshakes and greetings in this video:
In-person conversation can be scary and intimidating, especially when we are in larger and more unfamiliar crowds. It is just as much of a challenge figuring out what to say than what not to say. Here are a few tips to making conversation:
- Make and hold EYE CONTACT. Practicing this technique on your closed friends and loved ones is a good idea.
- Be a GREAT, not just good, listener. People love to talk about themselves and when they see an engaged listener leaning forward and nodding, you don’t even have to put in much effort to find something to say. This is Jamila has a great video about how to be a good listener. The one thing you really want to avoid doing is planning out what you are going to say. You will not only miss out on what the person is actually saying, but also make them feel like you don’t really care about what they have to say, only your clever or one-upping comeback. It’s totally obvious when someone is doing this, so know that you will not fool anyone!
- Another thing you want to avoid is the “room scan.” When you are speaking with someone, make it your mission to treat them like they are the most important person in the world. If you happen to see someone else you would like to speak to, make sure you transition the conversation appropriately and organically. Something like, “It has been such a pleasure,” and “I definitely would like to catch up again later” is a great segue.
- This article is an excellent primer on how to walk up to a circle of people talking and casually enter the conversation witout looking super awkward.
- Especially if someone does not know you very well, err on the side of being classy and more formal. Remember, you are representing not just yourself, but your employer, in many situations. Use the “full words” rather than acronyms or abbreviated words. For example, use “invitation” instead of “invite.”
- DON’T ask the following:
- What a person does. This is a big but often forgotten no-no. A more elegant way is to let that unfold and then ask follow-up questions.
- The same is true of asking someone where they are from (and God forbid, where they are REALLY from, which I get a lot). DON’T inquire on background or where someone grew up unless they bring it up.
- The same goes with “Where are you planning to go on vacation?” It is a disguised effort to find out about someone’s financial status and a little bit intrusive of their personal life for an initial conversation.
- If travel does come up, then you can definitely ask questions like, “Where was your favorite place to travel?” or “Where are you looking forward to visiting now?” but let it evolve organically just like the occupation question.
- “Are you married?” NO. “Do you have kids?” NO. This may seem like an innocuous question but is not respectful of people who choose not to have children and feel like they have to defend that choice and of people who may be facing great infertility struggles (and this is a lot more common than you think (per the CDC, 1 in 5 couples experience infertility, so there is a 20 percent chance you may offetnd someone).
- It is more elegant to avoid name-dropping or place-dropping. Most of us are well-traveled (at least, pre-2020) and no one is that interested in the great hole in the wall restaurant you found in the South of France. Name-dropping is even worse, because it indicates you do not have the confidence that you are interesting on your own.
- Be mindful of pronouns. Here are some good gender-neutral pronouns you can use: “Partner,” “Colleague”, “They/Them.”
In person meetings, client, and office visits
Whether one on one or in a group, now you have nowhere to hide. And confident body language is key. So following these practices is important:
- Dress like you did for the office pre-pandemic. Different office cultures have different dress codes. If you work for a tech company and jeans and hoodies were the norm, make sure your hair is clean and brushed and that there are no visible stains or wrinkles in your clothing. You should never, no matter what the setting, look like you just got out of bed and took five minutes to get dressed. We have all been conditioned by the lack of visibility from the neck down, but believe it or not your whole look is now your calling card, not just your area from the neck up. If you are in a professional services environment or law firm, make an effort to dress up more. Why? Because more of the “old guard” is actually going into the office, the crowd that grew up wearing a suite and tie. You don’t have to go all the way with that idea, but staying with slacks, skirts, dresses, and blouses will call attention to your professionalism and most importantly that you want to be there and that you respect the company. And finally to consider – are you really never going to wear all those clothes you spent a small fortune on again? Take a weekend and do a “closet cleanse.” Donate the clothes that no longer fit or that you know you will never wear, and keep a separate area of your closets for work clothes. It actually is quite fun when you put on some tunes or a good podcast and a great NEAT activity.
- No multitasking! You should not do this on Zoom anyway, but it is super obvious if you are looking at your phone in a meeting. While it may be OK to check it during a break, it should be in your bag and away from the table. The same goes for your laptop. Checking and responding to emails and instant messaging during a meeting is incredibly rude, and you will definitely miss something important that someone said.
- Posture is also important when sitting. Both feet should be touching the ground, and ankles can be next to each other or crossed at the ankle. Generally, you do not want to cross your legs because a) it puts a lot of pressure on your circulation (hello varicose veins) and b) it usually invades the space of the person next to you.
- Smiling is also important even if you are a passive listener. This puts everyone else at ease, especially in a smaller meeting. Which brings up an important point – TEETH. Always check in the bathroom if there is something in them and have one of those portable toothpicks on hand. You may want to also consider investing in Invisalign or a tooth whitening treatment. Believe me, your smile and your teeth can be a huge differentiator for your image – positively and negatively. A standard in-office dentist tooth whitening is only about 500 bucks, and a lot of HSA plans cover it. The results last for over a year!
- If it is your turn to speak, don’t stare straight into space. Now you can make eye contact with everyone in the room – while it does not have to be every single person, practice making eye contact with someone on one side, holding their gaze, and then making contact with someone on the other side. If it is a one on one meeting, make eye contact during the whole conversation and genuinely smile.
- Be aware of your voice pitch. Elizabeth Holmes deepened her voice for a reason, however this may have played into the larger controversy, it was based on years of body language expert advice that such a practice makes one seem more authoritative and confident. Especially do not end sentences on a high pitch, because that makes you seem unsure of yourself.
- A good practice when you are not speaking is to lean forward or towards the person that is speaking. This body language shows that you are listening and you consider what that person is saying to be important. Nodding your head is also a great way to show this gesture. It even is helpful to slightly nod your head when you are speaking especially if it is a sensitive conversation like asking for a raise; that is a body language trick to create a more affirming atmosphere.
- Remember that virtually, smell cannot be detected (at least not yet). You don’t want to the THAT person with the stinky coffee breath. If the restroom has free mouthwash, quickly swish your mouth, and keep a set of Altoids handy. Above all, drink enough water (see the next post) because bad breath is a surefire sign of dehydration.
- Same applies to bodily odor. Wear a good deodorant and go easy on the aftershave, cologne and perfume. The room should not have your scent after you leave it.
This can be seen in the following video from Jamila:
Dining Business Etiquette
Up until a few months ago “dining etiquette” consisted of leaving some spice tuna roll for my husband , but now we have to eat in front of other people and ideally want to look elegant while doing so. I got some good tips from Jamila’s video but also from this very entertaining video by another Etiquette Vlogger, Anna Bey.
Here are the highlights from both (they had overlapping themes):
- Seating in chair: Sit with a straight posture, but do not press your back into the chair completely. Imagine there is a small kitten behind you that you are trying not to crush (Jamila used this analogy – vivid but powerful).
- Your purse or bag: Should NOT EVER go on the floor. If you have a smaller bag, you can keep it in your lap under the napkin, or you can place it in an empty chair. If there are no chairs, place the bag behind you (but not on the table). Phones should be left in the bag, also not on the table.
- Which one is my glass? For a recap on which is your bread plate and which is your wine /drink glass, use the “b-d” trick. Your wine glass should always be between your plate and water glass. If you are drinking wine, hold the wine glass by the stem, not the base.
- Napkin placement: It should be in an inverted V shape on your lap or rectangular. If you are using the restroom, fold your napkin and place it in the seat. At the end of the meal, place the napkin folded to the left of the plate. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should the napkin be placed on top of the finished (or unfinished) plate of food.
- Silverware placement: For silverware, you want to place your fork and knife in an inverted V between bites, and at the corner of the plate when you are finished (so if it looked like a clock, it would be 4:20.
- Bread and butter: Remember, you are not making a sandwich. Once you take a piece of bread, tear off little pieces as you butter each one (this is also a good way to ensure portion control so you can “have your bread” and eat it too.
- For appetizers: If you order soup, slide the spoon from the center to the outer edge of the bowl away from you; this way you do not risk getting it on your clothes and having an embarrassing stain.
- For the main course: Wait until everyone receives their meal before you begin to eat. If it is a family style situation, eat from each plate one at a time, rather than treating it like a buffet.
- Elbows on the table: Not ok if you are eating, ok if you are conversing before or after food is served. Having hands in your lap is either proper or improper depending on the culture. If you want to play it safe, as Jamila points out, rest your wrists on the table with your palms facing the table.
- Drinks: When ordering drinks, call them by their proper names – champagne, rose, prosecco not “champs” or “fizzy” or even worse, “booze.”
- Dessert: Once someone indicates they are interesting in looking at the dessert menu, it is usually a sign that there will likely be dessert. If you want a dessert, definitely order one, but do not feel pressured to do so if you do not want one. For me, if I eat sugar really late at night, I cannot sleep very well. Have a cup of tea or decaf coffee so you are also noshing and not sticking out as someone just sitting there.
- End of meal: If you are paying the check, make eye contact with the waitperson or lightly raise your hand. Don’t do the check motion sign, it is tacky. If you are a guest, make sure you thank the host as the bill is paid and send a follow-up note the next day.
Anna also has a great post about 10 things Elegant Ladies never say (which includes asking someone what they do). I have put this and more of the “Elegant Lady” series on my channel, first, because the tips are good, and second, because I think she is hilarious. These videos are also excellent to share with kids if you have them, or with your office teams.
As you can see, you can go quite far down the Etiqutte lesson niche, but it is importnat to take etiquette seriously. Now that we have not seen each other often for a few years, the way we speak, walk, and act will shape the future of our society, not just our individual lives. We can all benefit from being a more polite and civil society, and have more confidence in the way we carry ourselves with these tips.