You’re waiting by the phone for a scheduled business call or an exploratory communication about a new project. Fifteen, then 20 minutes pass, and no call—not even a text message explaining the delay. As a career coach who meets with people all the time, I consistently face the challenge of canceled appointments. Or some people RSVP for a seminar they’ve registered for, but then never show up. This kind of behavior seems to be occurring more and more in the business world. Have you noticed it too?
Business experts and sociologists confirm that manners in business are in decline, reflecting a general deterioration of etiquette that is a consequence of changing times, attitudes and the rise of social media. Smartphones make it easier to navigate our social and professional lives, and if you're like me, your gadgets rule your business and personal life too. Technology was supposed to make communication easier, but people hide behind email or text messages to cancel appointments last minute or after the fact, or do things that feel uncomfortable to do in person or on the phone. We have all done it. And the result? The standards of what is acceptable for being late and when and how to cancel have been lowered.
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There is even a new term for it called “digital flakiness.” And if you think that nobody notices you have fallen into this category, think again, because people you do business with will notice. Last week a potential client set up a free consultation with me and missed the first one. His excuse was that he thought the meeting was the following day. He contacted my executive assistant to confirm the second appointment, only to never show up! This is not someone I want to do business with. This person is not at my professional level. There are a lot of excuses out there, some genuine and others just ridiculous, and they can accumulate and end up hurting your professional reputation.
Sociologist Richard Ling, a professor of communication at the IT University of Copenhagen, calls these freewheeling interactions micro-coordination. Before cellphones, he told The New York Times, “people made plans based on prearranged times and places, whereas now we can micro-coordinate, or adjust plans according to realtime events, be it a traffic jam or a late night at the office.”
With so many tech changes, “we need to have new rules for interaction,” says Von Bakanic, a sociology professor at the College of Charleston, “and the definition of good etiquette is constantly evolving.”
Yes, we are developing new rules as we go along—we no longer have to send a handwritten thank-you note for every event or party we attend—but some things should never change. We still need to operate with the core value of showing respect and consideration to other people. Personally, I still send handwritten thank-you notes. Adding that personal touch makes a huge difference, because at the end of the day you do business with people, and when you make them feel special and important, it sets you apart in a significant way.
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We have all been flaky at times in our lives, but when it becomes chronic or even occasional, that’s a problem. How do you know if you’re a chronic flake? Flaky people often forget to follow through on things. They make a note to call a prospective client back, or to check that a project is on track, or deliver the additional information that was promised, but then don’t. In other words, they drop the ball on multiple occasions.
Flakes often have problems with managing time. They routinely cancel or are late to meetings. In other words, they are unreliable.
Follow these three basic ideas and behaviors, and you will likely never be accused of being a flake:
Only make appointments and promises that you can—and will—keep. Of course, things like traffic or sudden illness can’t be helped. We’re human. But when you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you tell a client or colleague that you’ll call them next Tuesday at 10 a.m., make sure you do.
To get anywhere in life, you have to commit. First to yourself and second to the action(s) required getting there. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Do the opposite: Under-promise and over-deliver by setting smaller goals so you can continually exceed them.
Remember the golden rule. It’s not just business—it’s the people you do business with who matter. Follow the simple rule of behaving like you want others to behave toward you.
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Beate Chelette is a respected career coach, consummate entrepreneur and founder of The Women’s Code, a unique guide to personal and career success that she created after selling one of her companies to Bill Gates for millions of dollars. It offers a code of conduct for today’s business, private and digital world.