Updated on 02.21.07

The Value of Etiquette

Trent Hamm

EtiquetteRecently, I wrote an article about little things that immigrants to America might be surprised to know about money, consumerism, and human relations in the United States. It kicked up some interesting controversy in the comments, in which some immigrants basically stated that I shouldn’t be offering advice to them because I don’t understand their experience.

Anyway, one comment on the post struck a chord with me that has resonated for a while; here’s what Diamond had to say:

Of course this isn’t the end all be all, and doesnÕt cover everything that would be impossible for one person to write. You hear from travelers that go to other countries all the time, one of their biggest pieces of advice is to try to “blend” in with the culture. Try to be more conservative. It does help to get used to things, and will make life easier while youÕre still learning and integrating in.

Diamond hit upon something important here – the value of etiquette. Before you get concerned that I’m going to start quoting Amy Vanderbilt (although I am secure enough in my manhood to admit that I’ve read her Complete Book of Etiquette), I’m not referring to etiquette in the remember-which-of-these-seven-forks-is-the-salad-fork variety. I merely mean paying attention to and respecting the culture you’re choosing to participate in.

Why is this valuable? It’s valuable because basic etiquette shows respect and consideration for others who may hold opportunities of incalculable imagination for you. Much as I discussed earlier on the value of personal appearance, the impression that others have of you is an investment, and if you put very little into it, you’ll get very little out of it. Even more than personal appearance, proper etiquette is vital; you can be as poor as a pauper and still demonstrate a high level of etiquette and create a positive impression on others.

What should I do? Here are my ten basic points of etiquette. Don’t worry, these aren’t the “best of Emily Post” – they’re merely some guidelines to ensure that you show courtesy and respect towards others, who will then retain a positive impression of you.

Be on time
Don’t be habitually late. Make an extra effort to be on time – in fact, I usually seek to be everywhere I need to be five minutes early.

Don’t be crude
Avoid the following behaviors: swearing, shouting unnecessarily, getting angry, staring, pointing your finger, picking at your body (your teeth, nose, ears, etc.), scratching your skin, chewing gum in mixed company, and smoking in mixed company.

Don’t check your watch
This is my worst habit, one I’m trying to break. You should avoid checking your watch or the wall clock, as it creates an impression that you’d rather not be there (whether it’s true or not). If you do it, you’re giving a clear cue that you are not enjoying present company and it reduces the impression others have of you.

Avoid unpleasant conversation topics
While I don’t hesitate to discuss religion or politics with people close to me, it’s generally not a polite topic for mixed company. Also, you should avoid discussing personal finances and work except in the quirky and anecdotal sense – avoid specifics.

Greet people appropriately
This should almost always involve standing and a handshake or at least a nod of the head.

Always shake hands when you meet someone
When you meet someone new, take a moment to shake their hand. Stop, look them in the eye, and offer your right hand (always your right, even if you’re left handed). Give a firm grip and shake no more than twice, then let go. Don’t go for the double-handed “Bill Clinton” shake unless you’re in an intimate situation.

Always introduce people who do not know each other
If you are in the presence of two people who do not know each other, make an effort to introduce the two of them, even if you’re not the host of the event. By doing this, you are not only reducing the discomfort in the room, you’re effectively strengthening your own social network by creating two more secondary connections.

Refer to people by title
Use sir or ma’am until you know a person’s last name, then refer to them as Mr. Smith or Mrs. Wilson or Dr. Friedman until they give you permission to use their first name (many people will do this as a matter of course as soon as you use their title, but will hold you in higher esteem).

Use the “big four” phrases at every appropriate opportunity
The “big four” (as my grandfather taught me) are “thank you,” excuse me,” “you’re welcome,” and “please.” Make an effort to make these words and phrases a regular part of your vocabulary, as it paints a respectful and mature picture of you.

Don’t engage in an ethnic greeting unless you’re highly familiar with the nuances
For example, if you’re not Asian, don’t bow to an Asian guest unless you are familiar with bowing customs.

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  1. Excellent article. I fully agree that good manners and proper etiquette can definitely take you places. It is important not to stick out and embarrass yourself or others. I believe in the golden rule. Treat others as you would treat yourself – the Bible. In order to be respected, make sure you are giving respect, and in order to receive good things, make sure to do good deeds.

  2. chris says:

    I agree that etiquette is incredibly important and can be a deal breaker in all sorts of business and social interactions.

    I would add a couple items –

    Part of greeting people appropriately, at least in western culture, is looking them in the eye and smiling as you shake their hand. Not smiling is easily misconstrued as disapproval.

    Also, in terms of greeting people by their title – if you greet every woman over 25 as “Mrs” you risk alienating both women who do not define themselves by their marriage status and women who are unmarried. Unless you know that a woman is married, addressing a woman as “Ms” is a better choice, unless you intend to demonstrate your religious/political beliefs about women and marriage.

    I would also add a note about cell phone etiquette:

    Answering a phone call in the middle of a conversation sends the message that the conversation is unimportant. Worse is continuing to remain in the conversation group while speaking on the phone. Especially when everyone in the group now listening in on the call can easily evaluate the criticality of the call (in my experience it’s rarely critical enough to waste my time waiting for someone to get off the phone).

    I suppose part of the issue with phone calls is that it disrupts the communication flow which is rude.


  3. wanda says:

    In “mixed company?” Is it really all right for a man to chew gum, smoke, or discuss politics and religion as long as no women are around? I must be missing out on some fun discussions…

  4. laura k says:

    Re: not checking your watch, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in the past couple years — people pulling out their cell phones in the middle of a conversation (when the phone is not ringing). For the longest time I thought whoever I was with was checking to see if anyone had called, but I finally realized that they used the clock on their phone as their “watch.” If it’s absolutely necessary, it’s usually possible to subtly check a wristwatch. It’s far more difficult to do that when you have to dig your cell phone out of your pants pocket!

  5. jake says:

    I took a international business class and one of the things we covered was culture.

    For example if you have business with a Japanese client you absolutely have to be prompt and cant give bad news. One student gave his story where his company usually took about 1-2 days to fully reply to a fax, as it traverse the line of command. This was not acceptable to their Japanese client, which proceeded to sent a fax every hour demanding a response. What made the matter worse was that since there was so many faxes a few people took it upon themselves to reply, so the client got many different answers.

    Another student had a project in Germany. When he arrived he thought it would be neat to gather the German team and the American team and introduce everyone. Tell everyone your name, what you do, who you are etc. The problem is Germans are very personal, no one talked, it made for a awkward situation. You’d think for Americans introducing one another wouldn’t mean much, but apparently to them it was too personal. He said that the incident was an embarrassment to his company because he was not smart enough to check if that sort of thing was OK.

    For most Asian cultures discussing how much you make and your personal finances is common. But of course in America that’s personal business. I have a lot of Asian friends who come over to America and are surprised when they ask about income and get a hostile reception. Or when they discuss their income they are interpreted as showing off.

    A little research about where you’re going helps a great deal. Its also wise to try to explain that you’re new and you are sorry if you offend anyone.

  6. dlm says:

    there’s an interesting series of books at the library on etiquette in different countries i.e. Culture Shock Canada etc

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