Upon hearing about Kate Middleton and Prince William’s engagement last November, the first question everyone asked then was, “What will Kate wear on her wedding day?” As the day of the royal wedding came closer, another topic of discussion showed up online: the 22-pages etiquette guide the 1900 guests received in order to ensure that the royal ceremony would reflect the very essence of polished perfection.
While many of the do’s and don’ts of the royal wedding etiquette recommendations applied mainly to this specific situation, such as “Don’t give the Queen a friendly hug”, the list has some common sense tips which many would be smart to practice in their professional life.
Business etiquette is the accepted standards of behaviors we use every day to make a good impression on people and to feel good about ourselves. Appropriate business etiquette is crucial for professional relations and interactions, and is key to professional success. Sadly, few people seem to be aware of the terrible impression some of their behaviors make.
From the royal wedding list, I found three major business faux-pas I regularly encounter.
My generation, the baby boomer generation, was brought up not to chew gum for the same reason we were told and taught not to speak with our mouths full – it’s tacky and leaves a terrible impression. But in the past decade, I have noticed that many people, both professional and non-professional, chew gum in public. I assume this is because, in an age of computer-aided isolation, they chew gum at home alone or in the office, in front of their monitors for hours, and the habit carries over when they venture out.
Recently, I received an email with a link to one of the many local business programs offered in Prague. Out of curiosity, I went to the site and clicked on the pictures posted. To my surprise, in one of the pictures taken during a seminar, the presenter clearly had gum in his mouth while addressing the audience, gum which the camera immortalized forever (or at least until treated with PhotoShop). Although I do not know the gentleman or his company, seeing the chewing gum gave me such a negative impression that I might never sign up for any of the seminars offered by this organization – certainly not for those with the gum chewing organizer.
While most gum chewers would never dare to speak while eating something, the majority seem to be oblivious to the disastrous impression they give when, gum in mouth, they address an audience or an individual. It is plainly distasteful and reflects a lack of basic social and business manners.
You might have the best of intentions, the right look and a pleasant demeanor, but if you are chewing gum while addressing someone in a professional or social environment it will damage your professional image quicker than many other faux pas.
Business Tip #1: Don’t chew gum in public. Doing so cannot possibly impart a favorable impression.
Is texting utterly necessary or downright rude? For many it is still one of the worst anti-social behavior. (In my book, it is a close second after chewing gum in public.) While we are constantly reminded to turn our phones off during meetings, theaters, social events, while entering a business building etc, it seems that some people are still oblivious to the appalling impression their constant texting gives.
Last month, I attended a business breakfast for a small number of participants and a local high-profile speaker. My assumption was that those of us who were present wanted to hear what the speaker had to say, but I was proven wrong. To my surprise, a middle-aged woman sitting between me and the speaker spent most of breakfast taking her phone from her bag to check her emails, and answering them while keeping her phone close to her face so she could read her messages. (It might have been better to keep her phone under the table, but my guess is that she couldn’t read the messages that far away from her face.)
When she was finished, she would put her phone back in her bag only to bend down again three minutes later to repeat her checking/answering routine. This went on for the entire breakfast.
I was so annoyed by her inconsiderate behavior that when she tried to engage me in conversation at the end of the breakfast I cut the exchange short and walked away. She might be a very nice and competent business person (I later learned that she is a lawyer), but her behavior exasperated me so much that in the future I would do my best to avoid her when possible. And I doubt she has a clue why.
Business Tip #2: Don’t use your phone in a business setting unless you have asked the participants and received their approval prior to the meeting; and in the event that you do have to use your phone, leave the room.
Dress for Success
There was a time when dressing for success meant wearing an outfit that fit in. Men wore suits and ties, women wore skirts over the knee and conservative blouses. At IBM, the standard was a dark blue suit, white or light blue shirt and a conservatively striped tie in dark colors. In general, the “old” school of business attire didn’t give much opportunity to express one’s personal style and creativity.
Lately, the trend has shifted from reluctance to attract attention to getting noticed at all costs, especially for those women who are now asserting their independence and power in the workplace in ways that often work against them in the long run.
Although the new free spirit of today’s business fashion offers more opportunity to express one’s style, it doesn’t offer too much guidance about what to avoid in certain circumstances. Hence the several pages out of twenty-two in the royal wedding etiquette guide that were devoted to dress.
To prevent unnecessary embarrassment, the royal guests were instructed to steer clear of cream and white outfits to avoid stealing the spotlight from the bride. They were also asked avoid “flashing too much flesh”.
This last recommendation, like no chewing gum and no texting during the wedding ceremony, reflects the tendency of the 21st-century fashion statement. Today, in an attempt to express their creativity and self-confidence, many women favor open blouses which reveal deep cleavage; very short skirts; and high heels.
While most men and some women might enjoy the new trendy look, in a business environment, it doesn’t promote the image of a competent and credible professional but more the image of someone who, at the most, is not aware of business etiquette and, at the worst, is someone who cannot be taken seriously.
While no one will wear a tuxedo to the beach on vacation or a bathing suit at the opera, the same basic standards apply at the office.
Business tip #3: Dress to fit the circumstances, avoid undue displays of skin, and let your tie, eyeglass frames, hair style or a scarf express your individuality.
Since Confucius wrote the first rules of decorum, business etiquette has been questioned, changed and questioned again as to its importance. The complete list of do’s and don’ts of business etiquette requires more than twenty two pages. But to learn to conduct business with pizzazz and savvy, experience has taught me that each time you ignore one of these three basic faux-pas (chewing gum, texting and inappropriate dress) you come across as rude and inconsiderate, and risk alienating a potential business partner. And you miss an opportunity to make a good impression.
Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.