"Look out!" someone shrieked, as the icy, sherbet ball flew across the banquet room. In the midst of extolling the virtues of proper table manners to a lively group of businesspeople, I stopped lecturing and asked, "What happened?"
One participant sat quietly, with a blush of embarrassment accelerating across her face. Defeated, she stared at a telltale puddle the sherbet had left on the floor next to her VP's polished wingtips. After three previous servings of etiquette-challenging food and lessons on coping with difficult fare, the overzealous student mishandled her dessert spoon and sent the scoop of sherbet airborne.
Dining etiquette blunders come in many forms. After several years of teaching business etiquette and table manners to businesspeople of all ranks and functions, I've witnessed, or heard of, every etiquette faux pas imaginable.
There are lots of notable stories flowing through the bon ton grapevine. There's the one about the VP drinking from her finger bowl; the story of the account executive who chomped on a warm, rolled napkin mistaking it for a spring roll; the liquor-intolerant salesperson who propositioned the boss's wife; and earning its way into the etiquette hall of notoriety is the one about the president of a prominent advertising firm who ordered his sashimi well done.
We've all experienced those embarrassing moments that I like to refer to as "I can just kick myself" recollections. You know the feeling: in retrospect, you still shudder and cringe with embarrassment, thinking about your lack of savoir-faire in the face of a sticky situation.
Obviously, business etiquette considerations aren't restricted to the dining room alone. Common courtesy and deference are expected in all business environments - from the mailroom to the boardroom. However, while most people are self-conscious about their general behaviour, others just don't care about the whole issue of manners as it pertains to the business domain. They'll point to the crusty, old executive who made a name for himself by ignoring the peons of the organization, and barking obscenities to customers; or the obnoxious, loud-mouthed, team member who, despite a low social IQ, got the coveted salesperson-of-the-month award.
There are many elements that add up to the total sum of success but, for some, "nice" doesn't factor into the equation. Ironically, the people who don't care about their behaviour are those who are being judged as "arrogant" or "unaware" by others. Reality check: the corporate world has had enough! It seems our collective tolerance-level is not what it used to be. Good manners are back! The unscrupulous, egocentric professional is now regarded as more passé than the three-piece, power suit. Even Wall Street has softened its hard edge in the last couple of years. Many organizations have had to reevaluate their code of ethics and ways of treating their people. And it's undeniable that, in a pool of equally qualified candidates, the individual who knows how to schmooze will rise to the top.
Maybe etiquette needs to be called something else - interpersonal skills, conflict management or diplomacy training - to ring relevant to less-convinced ears. Admittedly, in the business lexicon, the term "polite" can sound somewhat prissy or even demeaning, but no one can argue that "diplomatic" is not a desired descriptor, both in social and business circles.
I've heard my students say that some people are simply born diplomats. I guess personality and individual predisposition will determine how confident and self-assured we are when dealing with others. But I know that education and training can make a difference.
In defiancé of the popular idiom, I've seen many a sow's ear turn into a silk purse. The metamorphosis from frog to prince starts with awareness and a willingness to grow and develop. Excuse my Dr. Philian spin on this, but it's like any other form of self-improvement. It starts with the realization that there's a performance gap that needs to be filled.
People like to do business with people they like or, better yet, with people who like them. That's why many organizations are spending big training dollars on business etiquette and intercultural communication to help their employees learn about the worldly ways of their global associates. The premise, driving such corporate initiative, is that an understanding of the conventions and mannerisms of a coworker, supplier or customer builds credibility and paves the road for a trusting relationship. It's not by accident that Business Etiquette is earning a place as a bona fide subject in training curricula across the global business community. Savvy recruiters know that interpersonal skills are another measure of overall business competence.
Nuances can make or break a business relationship. This is a lesson I learned first hand when working at an engineering company in Rome, Italy.
I remember alienating some coworkers by demonstrating my North American work ethic when I worked through the lunch-break. I couldn't believe the impact of my actions. One nurturing coworker took me aside and said the others were offended. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was setting an unwanted precedent. Lunch was sacred. Hadn't I heard of the "slow food movement"? I learned quickly that small rituals hold tremendous cultural significance. Funny how good intentions can be misinterpreted and take on opposite meaning when filtered through cultural consciousness.
When you consider how much business is conducted outside the safety zone of a worker's modest cubicle or swanky, corner office, it's no wonder that business etiquette is taking on more importance. Ironically, familiar symbols of leisure - the golf course, sailboat, airport lounge and restaurant - have become steadfast playing fields in the game of business. It's in these very venues that the seeds for good rapport are planted and cultivated. And it's precisely in places where behaviour can be more relaxed and less guarded that our manners really matter.
The most critical surveyors of public behaviour - the trashy tabloids - are well aware of this aspect of scrutiny. Inevitably, bad publicity will come out of a casual moment at a ski resort or a beach vacation, with paparazzi ready to catch someone with their guard down. Fortunately, most of us don't live such public lives where our every move is watched and documented on film. What really matters in our realms is the way influential people - bosses, recruiters, customers, and other stakeholders - judge us.
Most of us are mature enough to pay attention to our behaviour if something valuable is at stake - status, reputation, success, money. Who would be so self-destructive as to consciously ignore expected norms of good behaviour in a situation where his or her livelihood is in question? Celebrities often benefit from bad publicity but, unlike Hollywood, where even bad publicity can be good publicity, the real world is considerably less forgiving. That's why paying attention to one's manners pays off in the end.
Successful businesspeople agree that people skills (etiquette) are what carry a business transaction from a mere premise to a done deal. These days, many recruiters will interview candidates during lunch, simply with the hidden agenda of watching them maneuvre their way through a meal. The theory is that small gestures at the table are indicative of behaviour in the business arena. For instance, someone who lingers over a menu is perceived as a poor decision maker; the person who fumbles with his or her cutlery is judged unconfident and awkward; the nervous type who fidgets with food is seen as unsure; and someone more interested in their food than business matters is superficial and unfocused.
A classic Seinfeld TV episode pitted the etiquette-feeble George in a situation where his behaviour at a restaurant table cost him a job. His unwillingness to share a dessert with a potential employer and coworkers was read as a lack of team spirit. Poor George. Didn't he know that business manners really do matter?
Loretta Di Vita is a consultant in business skills development, image and etiquette. She is president of Decorum Consultation Inc.