Way back in the day when I was still in high school – maybe around 15 years old – I attended the bridal shower of a family friend. It was an tasteful afternoon tea and since I didn’t know many people there I was quite happy to go into the kitchen and help with the serving and the cleaning. Later I heard the hostess (who to me was one of the most elegant women I had ever laid eyes on) say to my mother, “Your daughter was such a great help. What a lovely young lady.”
That was it for me. If this exemplar of elegance thought I was a lovely young lady, well, then I wanted to keep doing whatever it was that earned me that description. And that’s when my obsession with etiquette began.
Now that I am (ahem) of a certain age, it may seem that my discussing etiquette is akin to your dad yelling, “get off my lawn!” But I assure you my darling 20-somethings, and anyone else who may be thinking I’m past my prime, schooling yourself in etiquette will serve you well professionally and personally. You don’t have to go as over the top as I did. I may or may not have saved my money to purchase Emily Post’s bible; I quite possibly could have politely elbowed my way to the front of the room to hear Letitia Baldrige speak at an association event.
Etiquette has gotten a bad rap because often, as with many things, its power has been co-opted for evil. It was never meant to be a “gotcha” weapon; quite the opposite – the rules and guidelines that govern good behavior as well as our social and business interactions are meant to put people at ease and communicate their inherent value. If you find yourself pointing out breaches in etiquette, then guess what, you’re breaching the #1 rule — making others comfortable and protecting their feelings. Etiquette is not a weapon for you to demonstrate your social superiority.
Etiquette also recognizes that we live in an evolving and changing society and therefore reflects our cultural norms and generally accepted ethical codes. This is what keeps us from expecting Downtown Abbeyesque behavior in the 21st century. (Though I wouldn’t mind having a Carson of my very own.)
- protects the feelings of others. It’s worth repeating: first and foremost, etiquette is about making others comfortable and protecting their feelings. You do not point out their errors or draw attention to their mistakes.
- makes communication clearer. If everyone knows the ground rules, unnecessary misunderstandings will not occur.
- will make you more confident. If you’re not worried about every move you make, you’ll have time to be fully present and confident in social situations.
- enhances your status at work. A large part of professionalism is understanding the proper code of conduct in the workplace. It will ensure you are perceived as more capable, more empathetic, more professional, and more intelligent.
- makes good first impressions. You’ve heard it a million times, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” If you use proper etiquette, that first impression will be a positive one (said the lovely once-young lady).
When you dive into the world of etiquette, you might be overwhelmed. So if you’re not sure what the “proper” thing to do is, simply ask yourself, “how can I make the person(s) in this situation feel comfortable and valued?” You can’t go wrong if you start there.
Here are some basics to keep in mind that will immediately make you memorable for all the right reasons:
There really are magic words. And they’re not expecto patronum. Say “please,” say “thank you” and for the love of everything that is good and holy “no problem” is not an acceptable substitute for “you’re welcome.” Seriously, don’t get me started on that one.
Mr. Rogers’ mother had it right, look for the helpers. As I learned at age 15, whenever you see an opportunity to lend a helping hand, by all means do so. If you’re at a friend’s house for dinner, help clear the table – don’t ask, just do it. If a friend is overwhelmed, find something that will help them realize they are not alone.
Elbows off the table, Mabel. You don’t have to spend weeks studying which fork is for what, though if you’re a freak like me you can find the answer here. Here’s some quick basics: napkins go in the lap as soon as everyone is seated. Don’t talk with food in your mouth. Ask for something to be passed versus reaching in front of Aunt Sally. But remember, the world won’t end if you use the fish fork for the salad.
Pen and paper, please. Yes, I’m talking about a handwritten note. After a job interview, send a note. If you receive a gift, send a note. If someone is ill, send a note. If you’re a guest for dinner (home or restaurant) send a note. Are you getting the idea? Not an e-mail. Not a text. And most definitely not a Facebook message. Send. A. Note.
You never get a second chance. When meeting someone for the first time, give a firm (not crushing) handshake, look the person in the eye (unless you are in a culture in which direct eye contact is considered rude), and smile. Use the other person’s name and use your name. Don’t mumble. Here’s the flow chart: firm grip, eye contact, smile, and in a clear voice “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mrs. Smith, I’m Kate.” See how easy that was?
OMG PUT THE PHONE AWAY. That’s all I have to say about that.
Once, after walking home in a rainstorm with a full bag of groceries that was about to burst, a resident in my building held the door open for me. I wanted to weep with gratitude. Little things matter. In a world that is getting increasingly ruder… cough *Donald Trump* cough … a small act of kindness can improve someone else’s life and have an impact you’d never realize. And that person may pass it on to someone else, and so on… and so on… and … well, try it and see.
Want to learn more? Here are some great etiquette guides:
- Emily Post’s Etiquette – 18th Edition
- The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Matters
- Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck
- The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man
(PS, if you’re a word nerd as i am, here’s where the word etiquette came from in the first place.)