Mind Your Manners
You may offer your seat to the elderly and know how to turn around a killer thank-you note like you’re Emily Post, but there are still plenty of challenges in the Art of Doing the Right Thing.
This might be because we’re using an outdated set of social rules: “People often make the comment, ‘I learned etiquette when I was 12,’ or, ‘My mother taught me table manners,’” says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of Pearls of Polish and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. We can’t expect the advice we learned as kids to guide us in the modern, ever-changing workplace.
Here are updated tips on how to impress, and not offend, your peers and colleagues.
I was invited to a business dinner. I’m gluten free/vegan/paleo. Should I mention my dietary restrictions when I RSVP?
The key to your approach, says MacNeil, is using humor: “I tend to joke about being ‘that annoying person with the weird diet’ just to make light of it.” It may feel a bit awkward, but remember that special diets are common these days, she says.
If a location hasn’t been determined, you can offer to book a restaurant that can accommodate your needs. If the reservation has already been booked and the options look slim, call ahead to see what they can offer you.
I always seem to ride up with our CEO on the elevator in the morning. I can’t decide whether I should make polite small talk or stay quiet.
Say something, but also pay attention to the boss’s cues to know if you should proceed, says Julie Blais Comeau, chief etiquette officer at Etiquette Julie and author of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility. If your boss is shying away from you, “keep it to the basic polite greeting and maybe — depending on the mood — add a comment about the weather,” she says. While it may not make for the most scintillating conversation, there’s no chance you’ll veer into anything inappropriate.
Most important is that whatever you say, be sincere. If you are aware of your boss’s hobbies or activities, ask about upcoming plans. If you have met family members, inquire about them. Then always exit on a positive note, says Comeau, like saying, "Have a nice day."
I have a mix of friends, colleagues, and bosses who follow me on social media. How do I know if I’m posting things that are appropriate?
Always think of how your bosses read your posts first, say Comeau. She recommends what she calls the Two-Refrigerator Test. Pretend that every photo you post ends up on two fridges: one is at home, where everyone from your mother-in-law to your seven-year-old niece will see it, and one in the office lunch room. Make sure you’re okay with both audiences seeing your post.
Examples of posts that may not cut it? Try to avoid graphic language, venting about work or coworkers, your love life, or even your social life if it includes hangovers and hookups. Keep those topics to face-to-face time with friends, or (where applicable) limit what posts your colleagues can see with individual privacy settings.
Our office has an open floor plan, and the person next to me wears too much perfume.
Don’t hold your nose — or your tongue. MacNeil advises going to management if you’re not comfortable speaking to your colleague directly. “I would go to your boss and let her know you have a sensitivity or allergy so management can speak with the person or implement a policy around scents,” says MacNeil.
This is best left to an HR representative or manager. But if you really want to take matters into your own hands, use the advice given to HR specialists: “Start with a soft approach to set the employee at ease, but don't beat around the bush.”
I’m going on a work retreat where we’ll mingle in casual clothing. Is it okay to reveal my tattoos and still be taken seriously?
These days, “very few people view tattoos and piercings as stereotypically ‘bad,’” says Gottsman. However, you may need to gauge whether the content of your ink fits your corporate culture (think: art that contains nudity, violence, or curse words).
A good rule of thumb if yours is too edgy: “If your arms or legs are covered during the workweek and your tattoos are not showing, the same rule probably applies,” says Gottsman. Plan on packing long sleeves and casual pants because, unless your tattoo is a part of your religion, companies can have a policy about it as long as it’s consistent for employees.
Not sure that your tattoo will be appropriate? Be honest and run the issue by your supervisor before you travel. Explain the content of your ink and find out firsthand whether it will be acceptable. It may not be a problem, given that tattoos are mainstream: A 2014 NBC news poll found that 40 percent of respondents had someone in their household with a tattoo.
I got a stain on my work shirt right before a business meeting! Should I bring it up or ignore it?
The first rule of thumb is to keep a travel-size stain remover in your desk for this kind of accident, says Gottsman. But what if you find yourself without one, or the stain is too large? Simply “make a light joke of the spill and drop the subject,” she says. Don’t keeping bringing it up — once you’ve made your joke, move on.
And what if you spill a liquid during a business meal? Make sure your neighbors didn’t get caught in the spill, apologize, and let waitstaff handle clean up. Gottsman advises a light joke at the end of the night, but like a stain, don’t dwell on it. You might consider sending a dry cleaning gift certificate if you made a real mess, says Gottsman.
I have a colleague who always gives up TMI. Now she’s always putting me on the spot with personal questions. How do I respond?
Your personal life is no one’s business unless you’re close friends (and even then, you should use discretion), says Gottsman. Use humor first to change the subject, like jokingly saying “I don’t kiss and tell!” If that doesn’t work, you can be more firm, says Gottsman. Besides, she says: “A colleague who is bold enough to ask invasive questions generally won’t get their feelings hurt when you don’t give them an answer.”
Just remember: It takes two to tango, so to speak, so you can shut her down (nicely) when she tries to disclose too much about herself. Try to change the subject to distance yourself from the personal. If that won’t work, be more clear. Say something that reflects how uneasy you feel, like “My ears! Please stop! Can we talk about something else?” And then launch into something less provocative. She should get the hint.