It’s 2011, and if you’re a baby boomer like me, you grew up adhering to the rules of etiquette as they were handed down by the likes of Emily Post. Your mother made you write “Thank You” cards for gifts, you were taught how to make a proper introduction, and more. You learned etiquette because you needed it to negotiate life successfully.
Living in an age of cell phones, text, and connectivity, it’s sometimes difficult to know which rules of etiquette are still observed. I’m not an expert on these things, but I know what I personally think is considered polite behavior. Here are a few things that I think are still appropriate, including a few new ones that speak to the device-driven world we live in. After all, proper etiquette is essential for maintaining positive business relationships.
When you meet someone for the first time, the most important person should be introduced to the lesser important. For example, “Mr. Important, I would like you to meet John Wageservant from Accounting. John, this is Terribly Important.” For peers, it’s proper to introduce the elder first. Be sure to use the prefix Mr., Mrs., or Ms.
I was taught that you never address a person by their first name until invited to do so, especially if the person is older than you. These days, we live in a first name world, but there are still times when it’s a good idea to remember this rule.
It’s still important to shake hands, but the art of the handshake seems to be lost. Extend your hand while making eye contact, grip the other person’s hand firmly but without squeezing, and shake their hand no more than three times. However, if you’re actively nursing a cold, politely decline to shake hands.
Once you’ve shaken hands, it’s time to converse. Be selective about what you say. That side-splitting story that you tell friends at the bar isn’t likely to go over well with your boss. When you’re in a group of people you don’t know well, it’s best to keep your contribution to the conversation “G” rated. My rule is that if I wouldn’t say it to my pastor, I probably don’t want to say it to someone I don’t know very well.
Similar to the handshake, make eye contact when speaking to another person. If this is something that’s uncomfortable for you, practice it. Eye contact is a way of telling the other person that you are engaged in the conversation.
If another person you know joins the conversation, take a moment to introduce them to the group. You don’t know if everyone has been previously introduced. If they haven’t, the newcomer will appreciate the introduction – and if they have, no one will mind.
Conversation should be a shared thing, so don’t monopolize or interrupt. Even if others have forgotten this rule, keep it in mind. I’m sure that there are a few people you’ve met who you don’t like having a conversation with because it either turns into a monologue or they constantly interrupt you.
Device etiquette 101
When you’re in a conversation, your phone should be on vibrate or turned off. If you absolutely have to take a call, apologize, excuse yourself, and then move away. Keep in mind that you should avoid this if at all possible. Texting during a conversation is a no-no, period.
For calls taken in public places, it’s always good to remember that your conversation will likely be overheard, and chances are that the people around you aren’t interested in hearing it. Again, step away from others when possible. If you’re on a public bus or train, remember that the microphones on those things are pretty darned sensitive, so try to keep your volume low.
If you answer your phone in the car, or God forbid, answer a text in the car, you had better not be the driver! In many states, it’s illegal to text while driving – and in some states, it’s illegal to use the phone while driving. If you’re driving and receive a call that you must take, pull over. There’s a reason why there are bumper stickers that say, “Hang up and DRIVE.”
My phone is an older model and not a smartphone, so texting is painful for me. It’s also painful reading the shorthand that people often use. Wherever possible, use proper language and punctuation. Keep in mind that when you text, there’s no inflection or body language to help shape your message, so miscommunication is easy. And once you hit send on that message (or email), it can go much further than you intended.
I like my mp3 player, and I use it. I’m not alone in this. Wearing ear phones has become the “Do Not Disturb” sign of the digital age. When having a conversation with someone, remove both ear buds or uncover both ears. Removing only one is a sign of disinterest.
These days, cameras are everywhere. I noticed that my doctor’s office has recently posted a sign that says the waiting room is a camera-free zone. What that tells me is that they’ve probably had to tell people not to take pictures. There are very few places any more that one might have an expectation of privacy. The doctor’s office should be one of those places.
Facebook and Twitter are realities of life. Anyone, anywhere can take a picture of you. The question is whether they should tag you in that picture or post it. To me, the answer is NO. In general, it’s a good idea to have the permission of the person you’re taking a picture of before you snap – and you should always ask permission to post a photo of someone, especially when the picture is of a child.
Sure, you can still take anonymous crowd pictures, but be conscientious of the time and place. Taking pictures of a line outside a restroom (or INSIDE!) is not your best choice. That romantic couple in the dark corner of the restaurant may not appreciate being the target of your camera either.
What should you Tweet about? I think my last one was about coffee. A good rule of thumb is to never Tweet about someone else, especially in a derogatory manner. This should also apply to your Facebook status. If you have to let off steam, avoid the use of specific names.
The courts recently decided that it’s not an actionable offense to post derogatory comments about an employer, as long as you don’t do it from the employer’s computer, but the issue here is a bit different. Yes, freedom of speech is important, but so is managing your online “appearance.” You can’t keep someone from talking about you, but you can choose not to stoop to that level.
How about sharing contact information? Some people argue that sharing email addresses is acceptable as we become a more networked society, but others prefer to choose who has access to that information. Personally, I have an email address that anyone can have, one that is specific to business, and one that is private. When I send something to multiple recipients, I prefer to use the BCC line as opposed to the CC. That way, the addresses aren’t visible to everyone. Finally, I prefer to know when someone is referring someone else to me. I doubt that I’m alone in this, but it may be an age thing too.
There are times and places to use your digital devices. I will pull out my Touch to quickly add someone to my contacts, jot a quick note, or set a reminder. I might also pull it out to show someone a picture if that’s appropriate. Otherwise, it’s not likely to be welcome. Be mindful of when and where you use your devices. A dinner party is a decided “no technology” zone, but a business lunch might not be.
The rules of a polite society have certainly changed since I was a kid. Knowing and adhering to some basics keeps you looking like the polished individual you are. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and you never know when the person you were just introduced to or met at a dinner party will become an important person in your network.