the only etiquette guide you’ll ever need

(in the US, at least — don’t quote me on any of this for international travel!)

Is that my bread plate? What about if you’re sitting at a round table? When do I use the little fork? Which glass is mine?! Can I drink my coffee during my morning meeting? Why is everyone taking notes without me?

Think you don’t need etiquette tips because you don’t work in an office or formal setting? Whether out on a date, making a first impression, or at an important meeting, the importance of etiquette and manners when it comes to face-to-face contact is actually increasing as the quantity of our human interaction decreases.

The golden rule: the essence of etiquette is making others feel at ease.

It’s not about adhering to a strict set of rules — but it is about upholding manners that demonstrate respect for the other party.

AT THE OFFICE

  • Take the sick day. If you are sick, stay home. You’re not a martyr, and nobody will appreciate you getting everyone else sick.
  • Knock before you enter. If you’re entering someone’s office, even if the door is wide open, knock on the door frame. Not a personal office? Knock on the cubicle wall.
  • Keep smells, scents, and fragrances to a minimum. What smells great to you may be making Cindy one cubicle over have a runny nose and itchy eyes.
  • …That includes food. Don’t eat at your desk (unless it’s simple snacks like nuts and fruits) — not only can the smells and sounds of your eating irritate those around you, it can also ruin your paperwork or computer.
  • Casual Fridays don’t mean pajamas (unless your office specifically tells you so); it generally just means you can wear jeans instead of suit pants — you should not wear anything with rips, holes, tears, or anything of the like, and never wear flip-flops.
  • Keep chatting to the breakroom (or not at all). It’s nice to be friendly with the people you work with, but nobody needs to be wasting time — and it’s likely that if you’re wasting theirs, they’re just too polite to tell you. How do you know when your time’s up? Pick up on cues such as reading an email, zoning out, answering with “uh-huh” or “yeah…”
  • Take phone conversations in private. Treat your office space like a library — if not quieter. Everyone needs to be able to focus, and if you’re carrying on with Susie about your date last night, you’re not being respectful of those around you.
  • No headphones. Don’t wear headphones or earbuds at work if you’re in a general office setting, unless your job specifically calls for it.
  • No gum. Don’t chew gum during meetings or conversations with your coworkers (on your own is totally fine though!).
  • Don’t hover. If you need something from a coworker but he/she is busy (such as on the phone), don’t hover waiting to finish — gesture for the person to call you or simply leave a note.
  • Keep personal hygiene in the bathroom. This means no nail clipping, flossing, nail-painting, or anything of the like at your desk.
  • Clean up after yourself. Even if your office has a cleaning staff, treat your office like your home (it kind of is your daytime home, after all). Failure to clean up your own mess simply because you think someone else is there to do so is a poor reflection of character.
  • Don’t eat what isn’t yours — and label what is yours. This goes back to the golden rule — do unto others as you’d have done unto you — you don’t want people eating your food do you?!

IN A MEETING

  • Don’t be late. Redefine what “on time” means for you — it should be 10–15 minutes prior to actual call time.
  • Drink yes, food no. Coffee, tea, water, soda — anything to drink is fine to have in a meeting, but don’t eat during a meeting.
  • Eyes up here: keep your phone out of site and on silent, and eyes on the speaker(s).
  • Listen, then ask. Have questions? Jot them down and ask them at the end or when you follow up.
  • Take notes. Note-taking is not a sign of weakness (many attribute it to “bad memory”) — it’s a sign of focus and interest. Do not take notes on your phone, though — that’s considered rude (even if you’re “not texting! swear!”). If you know the meeting is going to require a lot of note-taking and you don’t want to be writing, take your laptop or tablet.

IN THE ELEVATOR

Yes, they get their own section. There are approximately 120 billion elevator rides daily in the US — and if you work in an office or live in an apartment building, those few minutes each day in that small moving box can be more anxiety-provoking than figuring out what fork to use!

  • Stopped traffic to the right: when waiting for the elevator, stand to the right of the doors so that the people exiting can leave before you step on board.
  • Always out before in: always let people out of the elevator before trying to step in.
  • Ladies first: if time and space allow it. Chivalry isn’t dead, but if you’re packing 20 people in an elevator at rush hour, it’s OK to put it on pause. It’s customary for men to allow women to enter and exit the elevator before they do, but when crowded, the person nearest to the entrance/exit of the elevator will enter/exit first. In the case where chivalry is not dead (i.e: time and space allows for it), the male also asks the female what floor she needs and presses the buttons for her — unless the female is directly next to the button panel.
  • Not a single file line: if you enter an uncrowded elevator, step to the back and as close to the walls as possible. The first 4 corners of the elevator should be filled up before anything else — the rest of the passengers will fill in the middle.
  • But this isn’t my floor…if the elevator is crowded and you are at the door, don’t force people to squeeze past you; step out, hold the elevator door with your arm, and then step back in once all passengers getting off at that floor have exited.
  • Push everyone’s button: if you’re the one closest to the button panel, you should ask “what floor?” to any entering passenger so that they do not have to reach over anyone else.
  • Bags down low: if you’re carrying a ton of shopping bags, carry them low by your feet instead of at your hips/shoulder height; we’re all smaller in space near our feet/shins, so placing your bags lower allows for more (literal) breathing room.
  • Quiet please: pause cell phone conversations and/or loud conversations with a friend until you get off the elevator.

AT THE TABLE

  • The table is for food. Not your personal belongings — do no put your purse, cell phone, wallet, or any other personal items on the table; you can place them on a free chair.
  • Gather, then sit. Do not sit down until all people joining the meal have surrounded the table. In very formal settings, do not sit until the host has taken a seat, even if everyone is at the table (you’ll be able to recognize this when everyone else is standing around the table and looking toward the head of the table).
  • Then sit, then napkin. As soon as you take a seat, place the napkin on your lap.
  • The elbow rule: elbows are actually fine to be on the table when no food is present, such as before the waiter has arrived with your food, between meals when all food has been cleared, and after the meal has ended.
  • Pardon your reach. Avoid reaching across anyone for anything. If you must (such as if the other person’s hands are too full to pass you something), say “excuse/pardon my reach.”
  • Drive your BMW: from left to right, it’s bread, meal, water — on your left side is your bread/butter plate, in the middle is the meal, and the water glass on your right.
  • And pass right: pass plates to the right.
  • Outside in: the utensils actually aren’t so daunting — you start from the outside and work your way in. And the small utensils at the top? Those are for dessert — don’t worry about them until it’s time for sweets.
  • Break bread: don’t ever cut bread — tear small pieces off with your hands, and butter with a knife (do not “dip” your bread in the butter — but do dip in olive oil/other liquid dressings).
  • Wait for others: don’t start eating until everyone has their food — unless you’re at a large-party table (over 8 people), in which case, wait until the 8 people closest to you have received their food. Also, if someone’s meal is wrong and he/she chooses to send it back, it’s perfectly fine to start eating — and if you’re the person who sent the meal back, encourage the table to start eating.
  • Pass both, even if only asked for one. even if only asked to pass the salt, pass the pepper with it.
  • Never gesture with silverware in hand. It’s aggressive.
  • Eat “continental” if in a fancy or European restaurant. The continental way of holding your utensils: left hand holds the fork, right hand holds the knife; if you’re not using the knife, you do not switch hands — the fork stays in your left hand the entire time. The American way of holding your utensils is to hold the fork in your right hand, knife in the left, and switch when you need to use the knife.
  • Where does my hand go?! If it’s not holding a knife, your free hand goes in your lap or by your side. Do not keep it clutching/holding a glass or cup or another piece of food.
  • Excuse me: if you need to get up from the table in the middle of the meal, there is no need to explain why — simply say “excuse me,” fold your napkin so that no food/stains are showing and place it to the left of your plate — and make sure to put your silverware in the “pause” position if you don’t want your plate cleared.
  • Signal a pause: if you need to place your utensils down but are not done with your meal, place your knife at about 4 o’clock, blade side in, and the fork at about 8 o’clock, tines up, so that the tops of the fork and knife are angled toward each other, forming a tee-pee shape.
  • Signal you’re done: if you’re done and ready for your plate to be taken, place your fork and knife next to each other diagonally on the plate, handles at about 4 o’clock and the tops of the utensils at about 11 o’clock, with your napkin on the table.
  • Please don’t clear: if you’re done but others aren’t, and the waiter tries to clear your setting, politely tell the waiter “I’m not done/finished yet, but thank you,” so that the others don’t feel rushed to finish.
  • Business at conclusion only: never start a business conversation before the conclusion of the entrée — unless your host has invited you specifically for that purpose (such as a “lunch meeting” or business lunch), in which case, let him/her guide the conversation in that direction.
  • Tricky liquids: soup — spoon away from you, not toward you (this is to prevent splashing and ruining your shirt!), and when mixing sugar/creamer into tea or coffee, the spoon should always stir clockwise and never clink the cup.

AND EVERYWHERE IN BETWEEN…

  • Take a seat — for females: there’s one (relatively easy) rule — the knees and ankles never part (shins glued together).
  • Take a seat — for males: a few more steps here: If wearing a suit, unbutton prior to sitting (don’t forget to button it back up when you stand). Be a gentleman: pull out the chair for the woman to your right. If there is a woman on your left with no male to her left, you may pull her chair out for her as well if you’re able to get to her before she does it herself (no sweat if you don’t). Formal sitting position for men will vary based on the scenario; the wider apart the knees, the more dominance you are assuming — your knees should never be further than 2’ apart though.
  • Stand to greet: if you’re sitting and someone arrives, stand up and greet the person — especially if it’s an introduction to someone new.
  • Go right: greeting kisses are always right cheek to right cheek — but reserve these for friends and social meetings, never business.
  • When in doubt, shake: even if it’s social or personal, if you’re uncomfortable or in doubt, go for the handshake.
  • RSVP no matter what. A lack of RSVP is not the same as RSVPing “no;” if you can’t make it, advise as soon as possible.
  • Don’t show up empty-handed — even if you’re told not to bring anything, simply bring a bottle of wine, a dessert, or flowers.
  • Make the introductions (the right way): make eye contact with the respective parties as you introduce them, and make it short and simple: “Bob Smith, this is Sam Brown…”
  • Never give the phone higher priority than the person/people in front of you. Put it face down unless you are literally expecting or knowing you may have an emergency — and let that person know that you might be expecting. In all other cases, even if you’re not answering your phone, but you’re letting the noises go off — SILENCE IT!
  • Quit cursing and crass language. Even around friends — it’s a habit!
  • Please, thank you, you’re welcome: never discount the power of these words. Sprinkle them on everything, all the time.

This seems like a lot…how am I supposed to do all of this?!

Practice, practice, practice — until it’s second nature.

The key to elevating your etiquette is to apply it in all aspects of your life — mainly by practicing it at home. You cannot expect to be able to turn your manners off when you walk in the door of your home and on as you walk out — they are habits that, as you train yourself to keep, will subconsciously manifest effortlessly so that you can focus on the conversation at hand, instead of the anxiety wracking your brain over BMWs and where to stand in the elevator.

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