Why can’t you behave? Manners make the difference in small business

Practicing good manners at business luncheons is critical to make a good impression.

Practicing good manners at business luncheons is critical to making a good impression.

Many years ago, when I was working the beat as an arts reporter, a theatre director invited me to lunch at a high-end restaurant to discuss his newest project. To get the scoop, I had to sit through a painful hour watching this man chew food and talk with his mouth open; spilling hot sauce on his tie, and making a mess of his plate. The impact was unforgettable. I was repulsed. Later, I was chatting with colleague who had been subjected to the same kind of meal with the director. To this day, when I hear the name of the theatre or director, I instantly recall the disastrous meal.

You, as a small business person and an entrepreneur are the brand that represents your business. Your public behavior and good manners must reflect the image you’re trying to build for your product, service, and company.

We all know the things that grate on us: people who answer their phones during a meeting, text at the dinner table, swear in business conversation, slurp their lattes, talk with their mouths full, dress for a meeting like they just rolled out of bed…the list goes on.

Manners and etiquette used to be taught to people through proper parenting, socialization in school, and mentoring. In my first job, which involved working with diplomats and ambassadors, our company had a consultant who taught us “protocol,” as it were–which silverware for what course, how to shake hands, how to be “proper,” and the cultural differences of the international clientele we’d be working with.

I was lucky to have a mentor. When I was a grad student at Yale School of Drama, the late John B. Hightower, former director of the New York State Arts Council and the Museum of Modern Art, taught our class in grantsmanship and fundraising. (He later became my mentor, because we both had gone to Northfield Mount Hermon School). He spent several days teaching us how to network effectively and gracefully.

He said basically to “dress, behave, speak and act on the same level as the people you want to associate with.” Lessons well learned.

Some shortcuts to good manners (in no particular order).

Smoking. Don’t. The smell of smoke remains on your breath and clothes, no matter how you try to cover it up.

Drinking: It’s best to not drink alcohol in front of a client or potential client, unless you are specifically at a cocktail reception. In that case, remain sober, and know your limits.

Dress. Always dress for the occasion. Lean on the side of conservative, if you’re not sure. You may work at home where shorts and flip-flops are fine. If you’re meeting someone at their office, dress for business. I seldom wear shirt and tie to meetings, but in a more formal business meeting, I’ll wear a suit with a sweater. Don’t over-expose your body, and cover the tattoos, and remove body piercings.

Dining. Generally, the person doing the invite pays, but offer to pay your share. Don’t order anything extravagant. Most restaurants place silverware with the outer fork or spoon to be used first. Don’t talk with your mouth full, and men, don’t remove your jacket, unless the host does. Some foods are definitely finger foods–corn on the cob, artichokes. When you’re done, place your used silver on the plate.

Thank You! Always handwrite a thank-you note for a meal or event provided by a host. You can buy notecards at any supermarket or retail drug store like CVS in the greetings cards section.

Chat Topics. Keep your conversation non-controversial. Weather, sports, movies, shows, and foods are generally fine, but religion and politics are best discussed only with people you know very well. If it’s a business meal, business may be discussed. Be careful not to trash your competition, your own boss, or people you work with. That can shutter a deal. Talking about trends in the marketplace is fine. Making small talk is an important tool to have; doing a blatant sales pitch usually fails.

Conversation. Use proper, acceptable English in conversation (or whatever language you are chatting in). Leave the cusswords, swears, and street talk for another time. Language sets the tone of the meeting. You can be informal and inviting while proper.

At the end of our etiquette training, John Hightower posed a question. “How would you act in this situation? You’re at a cocktail party, and I bring Kitty Carlisle Hart (his boss of the time) over to meet you. You’re balancing a cigarette, a cocktail, and a small plate of hors d’ouevres. What do you do?”

No one got the answer right. His correct answer: 1) don’t smoke at the party. 2) hold the drink in your left hand so you can shake hands with your right. 3) don’t circulate with food. Live and learn!

Here are some resources to help elevate manners and protocol.


Letitia Baldrige’s New Complete Guide to Executive Manners. (Scribner) http://www.amazon.com/Letitia-Baldriges-Complete-Executive-Manners/dp/0892563621

From Entrepreneur.com: 15 Business Etiquette Rules Every Professional Needs to Know. http://www.entrepreneur.com/slideshow/227655

Business Etiquette for Corporate Events: http://eventplanning.about.com/od/eventplanningbasics/tp/business-etiquette.htm

Trade Show Booth Etiquette. http://eventplanning.about.com/od/eventplanningbasics/tp/trade_show_etiquette.htm

Holiday Party Etiquette. http://eventplanning.about.com/od/eventplanningbasics/tp/holiday_party_etiquette.htm

For courses in protocol and etiquette:

Emily Post’s Business Etiquette Training and Seminars: http://www.emilypost.com/business-etiquette

The Protocol School of Washington. http://www.psow.edu/


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

1 comment

  1. Kim says:

    I don't smoke and drink, so seems like expect these two factors I'm correctly following rest of the ways quite nicely. It's true behaving well with clients in small business lead you to the success of having long time working relationship. Thanks.

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