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Professional etiquette? What IS that?

So, I’m about to do a program on Professional Etiquette.

And I was surprised at the invitation, to tell you the truth. Do professionals—or anyone else—care about etiquette anymore? It’s sort of a fusty word, don’t you think? “Etiquette” conjures up Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and wearing white gloves to fortnightly, sitting with our ankles crossed and our hands demurely folded in our laps.

Does that make me sound old-fashioned?

“Étiquette,” it turns out, has been around since the 15th century, French for “ticket.” The meaning was later expanded to include “proper court behavior.” That’s “court” as in the royal court, not the traffic court where we, today, might deal with a ticket.

What about now? Brittanica tells us etiquette is “a system of rules and conventions that regulate social and professional behavior.”

Truth be told, I’m not that fond of rules

And I certainly see those rules regularly disregarded. Some might question whether we even have a system of rules and conventions anymore.

I like the way the Emily Post website describes etiquette in two parts. There are the manners, of course. Say “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me.” Put your napkin in your lap when you’re eating. Chew with your mouth closed. And so on.

Then there are what they call the principles of etiquette: consideration, respect, and honesty.

Okay, these are what I’ve been advocating all along. So, here are a few ways we might put those principles into practice in our business lives.

First and foremost, put your attention on the other person.

Everything flows from this first step. It reflects both consideration and respect, doesn’t it? Whether we’re interacting in person, on Zoom, or in an email exchange, if I’m clearly focusing on you, your needs, the outcome you’re looking for … the whole exchange is likely to go better for both of us.

Imagine yourself at a networking event, spewing a sales pitch at everyone you encounter as they inch away from you, eager to escape to a more enjoyable conversation.

Now see yourself engaged in conversations where two (or more) of you exchange greetings, introductions, information. You share experiences and maybe a laugh or two. You begin to develop an actual connection. It may or may not lead in the direction of business. Either way is okay; we’re not here to conclude a transaction.

As I tell my clients, we don’t network to close a sale. We network to open a relationship. And that opening can only happen when we focus on the other.

Listen more than you talk.

This can be a tough one, especially for extroverts. We have a story to tell, feelings to express, thoughts to share! And let’s face it, we might be inclined to overdo all that telling, expressing, and sharing. We can easily turn a conversation into a performance, where the other person slips (or is prodded) into the role of our audience.

Is there consideration and respect in that? Not even a little bit.

It’s shocking how often I run into professionals who go on and on and on about themselves without expressing the slightest interest in me—or anyone else. They blather, they elaborate, they repeat themselves as if they have no idea how to toss the conversational ball to the next person.

And often, they really don’t have an idea. I’ve literally had clients tell me they’re not sure how to create the back-and-forth of a real conversation, especially when they’re talking with someone less naturally outgoing.

Here’s the secret phrase that always works when you don’t know how to draw out the other person, or just open the door for them to say something.

Finish what you’re saying, and add, “And you?” Then stop talking and wait, even if it takes a few seconds for them to organize their thoughts, even if they’re less voluble than you are. “And you?” is the invitation they need and you’ll both be better for it.

Use language that’s clear, direct, and inclusive.

Stay away from jargon, high-fallutin’ lingo, and anything that smacks of sexism, racism, ageism, or any other ism.

Yes, inclusion has been getting a bad rap lately. You hear it in the news all the time, the anti-DEI tirades. Setting aside the politics, what we’re talking about here is being considerate and respectful and honest.

Unless you’re talking just to show off, you want to maximize the chances that they get your message, understand your meaning, and have something to say in response. Their replies matter, whether you’re selling, networking, or meeting on Zoom to plan your company’s spring sales push.

You increase those odds of fruitful conversation when you use language mindfully.

Be confident, not boastful.

We all want to do business with someone who knows their stuff. They’re good at what they do, whatever it is. We can count on their service, product, or their participation in a process to be solid. Valuable.

We might have a first-hand experience that tells us we can count on them. We might, however, have to rely on the way they communicate to give us an early indication of their confidence and their competence.

This is why it’s so important that we believe in ourselves and our work. And we convey that without bragging or self-aggrandizement.

Etiquette requires that we focus on the other person, listen more than we talk (or at least as much!), and converse in a way that’s comfortable for them. It doesn’t require us to be a doormat. So, we stand our ground, respectfully.

And you?

There’s more to etiquette than I’ve mentioned here, of course. You might be bursting at the seams to share your own ideas about what good etiquette means in 2024. I look forward to your comments.