There are few words that generate less excitement in a male audience than “etiquette.” On the scale of things men like to talk about, it usually ranks somewhere between contemporary dance and nail polish.
But it matters.
It matters a lot, actually. Etiquette is as much a part of your appearance as the cut of your suit. It affects how everyone perceives you, from the waiter you tip to the person watching you tip them. A man who dresses like a gentleman but behaves like a boor isn’t going to be mistaken for a gentleman for very long.
Etiquette vs. Manners: An Important Distinction
“But what about all those crazy rules?!” I hear you cry.
Thick manuals on manners can have that effect on people. It makes sense — why, after all, if you’re a good and well-meaning person, should you be judged on which spoon you use for soup? Who has time to remember all that?
Happily, you don’t have to remember a bunch of specific rules — at least not most of the time. Manners are slightly different from etiquette, though they are an important part of it in some circumstances:
- Etiquette means the way you handle yourself as a part of society. It is, fundamentally, the sum of your behaviors and how they measure up to other people’s expectations.
- Manners are specific customs and habits accepted as normal and proper behavior. Your manners are the rules and rituals that you perform publicly.
An easy way to understand the difference: you can make a list of manners, but you can’t make a list of “etiquettes.”
When it comes to manners, the basic ones like saying “please” and “thank you” and chewing with your mouth closed are very likely things you’ve known since grade school and don’t need to sweat (though you may need occasional reminders to practice them). More “exotic” scenarios, where navigating two dozen pieces of silverware is expected behavior, are exceedingly rare — and in those situations, the proper etiquette is to take the time to learn the expected manners.
When it comes to learning etiquette, forget about soup spoons, and instead think about the entire way you comport yourself in your day-to-day life. Rather than concerning rules, etiquette is about common sense guidelines for how to think and act like a gentleman. As the purpose of this particular guide is to teach you etiquette, rather than the specifics of manners, below we expand on these guidelines.
The Fundamentals of Etiquette
Good etiquette is not adherence to rules; it is a way of thought and behavior. At its core, it is little more than a conscious attempt to be a positive contributor to human society rather than a negative one.
Different writers have suggested different principles of etiquette, but in my experience it comes down to three simple fundamentals:
Awareness is knowing your situation and the expectations other people will have of you in that situation.
Consider our example from above: in most situations, no one will ever expect you to know which spoon is for which soup course. Most situations don’t even have a soup course, much less multiple ones.
However, a man who finds himself in one of those situations should be aware of the new expectations. Fancy dinners don’t usually jump out unexpectedly, so a gentleman will take the time to learn and memorize the basics of tableware if he does find himself invited to such an event.
This is the first fundamental of etiquette. It is the art of reading a situation and determining what people will expect of you. In most cases, this is as simple as watching quietly and being a thoughtful observer for a few minutes before acting — a good default behavior in almost any circumstance.
“Will this action make a positive impact on the people around me?”
Any action can be tested with that simple question. An action that answers in the negative requires hard thought before doing it.
We can’t make everyone happy all of the time. But there’s a big difference between facing the unpleasant necessity of disappointing or frustrating someone and thoughtlessly doing something that causes needless bad feelings. Thoughtfulness means considering how your actions change the lives or experiences of others, not just yourself.
It’s important to note that thoughtfulness isn’t just avoiding rude or offensive things. It’s the principle of doing things that make life better for everyone, in big or little ways. Avoidance of conflict is a good start, but it’s hardly the pinnacle of thoughtful behavior.
Few things are as awkward or damaging to a social situation than a man floundering about trying to do the right thing without knowing quite what that is.
As contradictory as it sounds, one of the most important rules of polite behavior is never appearing frustrated or confused by the rules of polite behavior.
Awareness and thoughtfulness help enormously with this, of course, which is why they’re the other two pillars of good etiquette. But being able to do the right thing without making a big deal out of it is just as important.
Confidence is not aggression or over-assertiveness, of course. If you’re making a noticeable show of behaving politely, you’re not behaving politely. Confidence should be invisible — it is the driving force that allows thoughtful, polite behavior to happen smoothly and seamlessly.
Basic Social Etiquette: Day-to-Day Situations
The most necessary form of etiquette is also the easiest to master. How should a man behave in his daily life, from his walk to work, to dinner and drinks after?
Turns out the answer is short, consistent, and common sense.
1. Others First, Then You
A gentleman can take care of himself. As such, he should never need to cut in line, take the larger portion, speak at length about himself, or cut someone else off in conversation. Anyone who advises you to do those things isn’t teaching assertiveness — he’s teaching bullying.
This is nothing more than the assumption that other people’s happiness matters and that your actions can affect it. Believe that and you’ve already mastered most of etiquette.
2. Be a Positive Presence
Putting the needs of others first doesn’t mean being a wallflower. A neutral presence isn’t a presence at all.
Always be ready to be the guy who introduces himself with a firm handshake and clear, unbroken eye contact. An amazing number of men aren’t that guy — so you’ll find yourself rescuing less adept men and bringing them into the social interaction, which in turn leaves them grateful for and happy about your presence.
Above all, don’t ever let yourself stray into negativity. Complaining in public never makes you look good, even when it’s about something that everyone around you also hates (waiting in line at airport security, say, or the construction outside the building). Laugh, shrug, and change the conversation to something happier. That way your company isn’t associated with people’s negative feelings about other matters.
3. Make the Thoughtful Gestures
One of Emily Post’s famous sayings was: “Asking if you can help isn’t courtesy — doing it is.”
Go ahead and do small, thoughtful things without asking. Treat them as assumed, rather than as something you’ve gone out of your way to do. People will notice. In this day and age, they’ll be amazed. And it takes so little:
- Hold doors. Never make a show of diving for one, of course. But make the small moves you need well in advance so that you can always hold a door for your companion or for a stranger, regardless of their gender. If the physical realities of the situation make it more convenient for someone else to get the door, accept with grace, and wait for next time.
- Greet with a smile and eye contact. Whether you’re interacting with a cashier, clerk, or bartender, acknowledge their presence and recognize their humanity by smiling and looking them in the eye. In appropriate situations, also offer a handshake and your name. Don’t treat people as interchangeable with automatons by using your phone while you interact with them. Treat every person like their first impression of you matters — because it should.
- Dress neatly. You don’t have to overdress, but your outfits should always look like outfits, rather than just clothes. Use neat little touches like the right belt, a nice watch, or even just a fresh shine on your shoes to show that you care about details in everyday life, and are willing to help make special occasions feel special.
- Use “sir” and “ma’am.” This never, ever hurts. Many people will tell you “Oh, just call me [name]” as soon as you do it, and then you can switch. But they’ll remember that you started with respect.
These are the small differences that set gentlemen apart from just men. They’re almost mind-numbingly easy, and almost no one thinks to do them. Be the minority who does.
Business Etiquette: Work Situations
One of the joys of business etiquette is that it’s consistent. The same basic courtesies apply whether the situation is a $2,500-a-head fundraiser dinner or a casual lunch between a new author and his/her literary agent.
Specific rules of dress and procedure will differ based on your setting, although there’s a good deal of consistency there, too. You may need to brush up on individual expectations if you’re attending a fancy dinner, black tie gala, or similar formal event. But the etiquette for any kind of business encounter, inside the office or out, remains the same:
1. Above All Else, Do No Harm
This often-misattributed maxim doesn’t actually appear in the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, but it’s a fantastic rule for business etiquette.
No matter where you are or what your profession is, it depends on the good will of others. Every impression matters. Therefore, make every impression a good one. Weigh your actions and choose only the ones that are positive and considerate of others.
Another good maxim to keep in mind is that “reputation takes a lifetime to build, but a moment to destroy.” Be a little conservative in your actions and deeds. It not only gives other people time and space to be heard (which they always appreciate), it saves you from potentially disastrous missteps.
A few things that should always be avoided in any business setting:
- Raising your voice in anger. If you’re shouting, you’re probably wrong about what you’re saying. You’re also making a bad impression on everyone who can hear you. Don’t.
- Swearing. Some offices are full of it; some offices aren’t. Doesn’t matter. Don’t get into the habit and you won’t ever do it around the wrong person. It’s useless filler anyway — little more than a glorified “um” — and over time it teaches people that they don’t have to listen to every word you say.
- Physical contact. Beyond a handshake (firm, brief, with eye contact) you shouldn’t be touching co-workers, clients, or anyone else at the office or event. This is especially true across genders, but applies to everyone.
- Sloppy dress. Casual is fine — if it’s appropriate for the setting — but messy is not. Shirts should be tucked in; shoes should be shined. You want people to see a man who cares about details when they look at you.
- Negative comments. About anything. Rainy day, Cubs lost their fifth straight, business deal fell through and cost you thousands of dollars — doesn’t matter. Don’t be the guy who can’t stop hammering on the negatives. Take a deep breath, limit yourself to a strained “Wish that hadn’t gone that way,” and move on (to constructive solutions, if possible/relevant).
2. Listen, Then Talk
A polite businessman is a good businessman. Don’t let pushy deal-makers convince you that it’s a weakness to listen, think, and then speak carefully and to the other person’s interests.
People like to talk. Let them. It gives you the double advantage of making them feel good about your company and giving you personal details to remember. Consider everything they’re saying seriously, and address it in your response before going on to present your own views. Good phrases include:
- “Tell me more.”
- “[Name], I’m interested what your take on this is.”
- “That’s interesting.”
- “That’s right, [Name], didn’t you tell me that you [relevant personal detail]?”
Your own response, of course, can and should follow. If you’re dealing with a gentleman, they’ll afford you the same courtesy (and at the very least you’ve set a good example). But giving the other person that chance to talk makes you come across as an easy person to get along with — someone it’s pleasant to do business with.
Practically speaking, this is a skill that will also make you a better negotiator. Aggressive business talk and tough deal-making works on people who are easily bullied, and you don’t find easily-bullied people in charge of important businesses. The guys who call the shots are not going to be impressed by bluster and short-term, win-it-now attitudes. Demonstrating courtesy also demonstrates wisdom, long-term thinking, and an ability to understand cost/benefit analysis. So you get to do the right thing and help your career. Nice, right?
3. Be the Nice Guy in the Room
We’re talking about being an actual nice guy, not the stereotypical pushover “Nice Guy.” Giving business concessions you don’t want to when negotiating a deal needn’t be part of being a gentleman, while employing healthy assertiveness should. But as a general rule, taking it upon yourself to make everyone’s life a little easier around the office and during meetings is good common sense, and a practical way to be thought of well and remembered fondly.
Look for small opportunities to establish yourself as a nice guy. If you’re at a restaurant, tip well. Hold doors for people. Carry a couple spare pens to a presentation in case someone needs one. Bring donuts to the morning meeting.
Be cautious of overdoing it, however. Business etiquette is more conservative than general social etiquette. Certain gestures may be seen as inappropriate:
- Gifts are almost never appropriate in a business setting. No matter how well meant, there is always the hint of impropriety. Exceptions occur in situations where business could not possibly be affected, such as at someone’s retirement or going-away party, or on specific occasions like Secretary’s Day.
- Pulling out a chair for a lady to sit or when she rises is not appropriate. Let everyone handle their own chairs unless there is a physical need for assistance.
- Payment for business meals should always rest on the person who issued the invitation. Offering to pay is not necessary if you did not initiate the meeting or event. If you are the planner or host, you should not suggest splitting the check or accept someone else’s offer to pay.
Event Etiquette: Special Situations
Weddings. Baby showers. Funerals. Award dinners. End-of-season sports team parties. They all have their own special rules, and who can keep track of them, right?
Well, for the most part it’s actually pretty easy. The setting of a special event may affect a few of the specific manners you’ll be expected to observe — what to wear, whether to bring gifts, and so on. But the general behavior of a gentleman invited to attend a special occasion is remarkably consistent:
1. Know the Expectations
There are going to be some specific rules. Take some time to learn them.
If there’s a specific dress code, the invitation will usually say. If there is no dress code and you’re unsure what’s appropriate, you have a couple options:
- Quietly ask a few friends who are also attending.
- If it’s at a commercial venue, call the staff and ask what typical attire is.
- If all else fails, write a polite e-mail to the hosts and ask.
As a general default, however, you usually won’t go wrong wearing slacks, a collared shirt with a necktie, and a casual sports jacket for most events. The jacket and tie can be shed and the sleeves of the shirt rolled up if you find yourself overdressed.
Other social expectations may include bringing a dish (potluck style) or presents for a specific occasion. These will be specified in the invitation. A small gift for the host/hostess is appropriate for events where gifts are not expected — chocolate, wine, or minor household items like coasters and stemware are usually good options. Don’t be extravagant.
Events at places like restaurants, bars, or entertainment venues are sometimes paid for by the hosts and sometimes split among guests. Ideally your hosts will tell you in advance, but have enough cash on hand (including some small bills) to make your part of bill-splitting easy if it does come up.
2. Speak Quietly and Cheer Loudly
That phrase is shorthand for a deeply important idea: events that you are not hosting are not about you. You are there to be an appreciative audience and minor participant, not the center of attention.
Resist the temptation to be the man who gives unplanned toasts or speeches. If you are asked to, of course, do so, with enthusiastic praise for your hosts, but otherwise leave the talking to others. Your contribution should be limited to polite conversation with other guests when no scheduled activities are taking place.
Many people feel awkward at large social gatherings, so help them out — if there’s a “mixer” period, take it upon yourself to offer a silent stranger a handshake and your name. Ask them how they know the hosts, and lead them into conversation. If you have friends with you, make the relevant introductions. Then hush and let the conversation flow naturally.
3. Give the Hosts Their Due
Thank your hosts for the invitation and present them with any gifts you’ve brought when you arrive. Thank them again when you leave, and write and mail a letter or card the next day.
Conclusion: Etiquette Is an Attitude
Etiquette is a state of mind and a way of life rather than a set of rules. It’s paying attention to your situation, thinking of other people first, and doing the right thing without hesitation. In simplest terms:
That’s all it takes. And it makes a huge difference in your life and in how other people see you.
Go be a gentleman!