Along with cursive penmanship and letter writing, formal etiquette seems to be a lost art. Do manners still matter in the age of texting and flip flops at the White House?
The answer is a resounding yes, according to local author Laura Mathewson. She spent a career working in private clubs and observing etiquette – or its lack – for years. She wrote her book Bottom Line: Manners Matter in 2013 to help a generation of younger people entering the workplace. “I realized,” she says, “that many people are not aware of the right way to do things. It’s not that they don’t care; they simply don’t know.”
She goes on to say that even though we’re a much more casual society than we were fifty years ago (“and that’s for the most part, a good thing”) manners are still a part of how we’re judged in social and work situations. “Your manners are an indication of your education, your sophistication, and even your attention to detail. Having great manners is certainly a way for a job applicant to stand out in a competitive field or position themselves as management material.” There are so many things you can’t control in a competitive job search: your age, your ethnicity, or who you’re competing against. But you can control how you conduct yourself in a meeting. Manners are rare enough that they will be noticed immediately.
It’s a mistake to assume that etiquette makes things more complicated; good manners, Mathewson says, are designed to put everyone at ease. We will all be playing by the same rules, which helps eliminate awkwardness in social situations. In almost every business situation, she says, you should err on the side of more formal manners. You can always relax a bit if the situation calls for it, but you can’t go from sloppy to formal after making a bad first impression.
If you have to remember just one thing, what’s the most important rule in business etiquette? Mathewson says it’s to take your cues from the most senior person in the room (by age or rank.) Don’t enter a room, sit down, or start eating until the most senor person does so or invites you to. (Note to senior people: “Please come in and have a seat” is your responsibility, lest the poor applicant be left standing for hours.)
The universal rule in etiquette is not, as you might think, the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. It’s actually quite different (we’ll call it the beholden rule): Treat others the way they want to be treated. Under this guidance, manners should rise to the level of the person who cares the most. Again, always start formally; you can relax based on the other person’s cue. “Please, call me Candace.” “Please, start without me; my salad will be out shortly.”
One of my favorite movie scenes ever is watching Julia Roberts’ character Vivian gain confidence after being taught table etiquette by Hector Elizondo’s kindly maître d’hôtel, Barney. It’s not enough to be drop dead gorgeous, even in a romantic comedy. Learning the right way to do things gave her character the confidence to win over Richard Gere – and his wealthy client.
If you blow it, will you know it? Sometimes. You may see a momentary flinch that will signal a gaffe on your part. But, says Laura Mathewson, if the offended party has real manners, you will never know when you’ve made a mistake. That’s why she wrote a book you can study in advance.
Next: An Etiquette Quiz.
Find more about Laura at her website.