Business Etiquette: 12 Tips to Improve Manners

Showcasing proper business etiquette in a culture of rudeness says a lot about you as a leader. Make sure you're on your best behavior with these 12 tips.
July 09, 2013

"Good manners," said Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, "is the noise you don't make when you're eating soup." Today, that noise pales compared to the noise most people make when they thoughtlessly use their cell phones in enclosed public spaces. Intel's modern manners survey shows that 81 percent of U.S. adults believe that mobile manners are becoming worse: One of the top pet peeves is talking on a device loudly in a public place. Speaking loudly on your cellphone in the proximity of other people who are trying to enjoy their meal, for example, is the technological equivalent of slurping your soup.

Etiquette is not about knowing which fork or knife to use. This is simply the veneer of manners. True etiquette goes well beyond that. It's a fundamental quality that comes from within and encompasses many aspects: kindness, empathy, courtesy—a consideration for those who are around us. We may need an etiquette book to learn which utensils to use, but we don't need an etiquette book to learn to be civil. Unfortunately, technology advancements have created situations where many people behave in an uncivil manner. Those who show care in the way they behave when others are around them display the qualities of leadership. They quietly guide others by their examples. Civil manners don't go unnoticed. We see them because they stand out.

What does it take to have civil manners in today's world? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Don't be offensive with your camera.

How have we become offensive with our cameras? Let me count the ways. Instagramming food has received some very negative press lately. Restaurants have started cracking down on people snapping pictures of their food as it's distracting for other diners. As one chef put it, table photography "totally disrupts the ambiance ... It’s hard to build a memorable evening when flashes are flying every six minutes." We are all guilty of having taken photos of our food, me included. But perhaps this is a practice that is best reserved for family dinners. Another way that we may use our camera offensively is when we insist on snapping a photo of a colleague during a social event, when they clearly prefer not to be photographed. Many people are particular about being tagged in photos that are not flattering.


2. Reevaluate your ringtone.

Ringtones no longer seem to be for the sole purpose of signaling an incoming call. For many people, they are a way to attract attention to themselves and their hipness. This leads to choosing ringtones that are set too high; they pierce the air, and annoy employees in the next cubicle, or in open office areas. If your ringtone falls in this category, consider changing it. Check out Cleartones' minimalist ringtones, which Wired has dubbed "the least annoying ring tones ever."

3. Keep your personal items off the restaurant table.

It's a poor practice to place all sorts of belongings on a restaurant table. These include items such as your cellphone, car keys or clutch bag, to name a few. These items are laden with germs. An article in The Wall Street Journal shows how cellphones, for example, are great for sharing not only photos, but bacteria as well. Dr. Jeffrey Cain, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, tested 100 cellphones and discovered them to be "veritable reservoirs of pathogens." Keeping them off the table will also take away the temptation to use them, which is a rude gesture when eating with others.

4. Don't ask to borrow someone's pen on a plane.

It's not uncommon for a passenger on a plane to ask a fellow passenger to borrow a pen to complete a form. While most people oblige because they would be uncomfortable refusing, consider that some people don't enjoy lending out their pens. Carry your own pen, or ask the flight attendant to provide one from the airplane supply. Some people are so concerned about the very real issue of germs on pens that a company created a rollerball pen that staves off bacteria: the brass from which it's made is certified by the Environmental Protection Agency as being antimicrobial.

5. Don't leave voicemails that are longer than 30 seconds.

How many of us have had to endure a voicemail that starts with a person mumbling his or her name too quickly for us to catch it, then leaving a long, rambling message, with the phone number mumbled too quickly at the end. This means we have to replay the entire message. Practice consideration by slowing down slightly at the beginning of the message to enunciate your name and phone number before going into your message. Conclude your message by briefly restating your name and phone number. Leaving messages that are no longer than 30 seconds is practicing telecommunication kindness.

6. Show social media savvy with business contacts.

There are many ways that we unwittingly breach etiquette rules in social media. Take Facebook for example. For most people, "friends" on Facebook include family, friends and business connections. You might share with family and friends every minute detail of your endeavors; e.g., how many miles you ran or how many laps you swam on any given day. But it's not considered appropriate to inundate your business connections with these details on a daily basis. Consider setting up a special Facebook group just for family, friends or other like-minded sport enthusiasts in your entourage. This way, you don't end up crowding the newsfeed of your business connections with the daily digest, which might force people to reluctantly disable the feed for all news from you.

7. Don't exclude others from the conversation.

When you're in the company of clients or business colleagues, guard against whispering a side comment or telling inside jokes. These exclude others, and exclusion is not a smart move. People resent it. It's also not considered appropriate to speak in a language that others don't understand. So if your native tongue isn't English, refrain from speaking with colleagues of the same country in a foreign language that is not understood by everyone present.

8. Respect people's names.

Refrain from using a nickname for a client or business associate that you have just met. Start with their formal name—e.g., Thomas—and then watch for the cues they give. If they sign their email to you as Tom, then by all means, use Tom in the next interaction. Some people are very particular about their name and don't appreciate it being truncated to Jen if their name is Jennifer.

9. Understand the politics of seating arrangements.

If you are the first one to arrive at a restaurant for a group business dinner, wait to be seated. When a second person arrives, you can both ask the maitre d' to seat you. If you are hosting the dinner, make an effort to get to the restaurant a few minutes earlier than your guests. As a general rule, the host directs guests to the best seats, which are the ones overlooking the restaurant or the view—or the ones inside the booth. The host sits on the chairs, with his or her back to the view or restaurant. These are small details, but in business, small details make a difference.

As John Wooden put it, "Little things make big things happen." In a meeting room, unless you are the boss, avoid the power seats, those at either end of the table. In The Power Seat: Where You Sit Matters, Bernardo Tirado explains how where you sit can help or hinder you. If you are meeting in a client's office, it's considered polite to remain standing until the client motions you to take a seat. It's a courteous gesture that doesn't go unnoticed.

10. Know what to tip when on an expense account.

Most people have no problem knowing what to tip. However, when on an expense account, we may fear scrutiny if the tip is too high. Conversely, we may tip too generously because someone else is taking care of the bill. Regardless of who is paying for the bill, it's important to follow the usual protocol for tips as waiting staff depend on the tips to supplement their income. A rule of thumb is to tip between 15 and 20 percent of the before tax amount. (Check out this infographic of Tipping Etiquette Around the World.)


11. Know your business etiquette quotient.

When you sit at a hosted business dinner for 10, when is it appropriate to start eating? What is the right thing to do when someone hands you a business card? The answer to these and other questions are revealed in these two quizzes: Test Your Business Savvy Quiz and The Business Etiquette Quiz. Test your etiquette IQ and find out.

12. Refrain from asking people where they are staying.

When you are attending a business function out of town, it's best not to ask other attendees in the group where they're staying. Not everyone can afford to stay at a five-star hotel and you might unintentionally embarrass someone who has to admit he or she is staying at the local Bates Motel, while others are indulging themselves at The Ritz-Carlton.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photos: Thinkstock