Emily Post opened chapter 32, Etiquette in Business and Politics, of her best-selling first edition of Etiquette by relating the following story (keep in mind it was written in 1922):
A certain rich man whose appointment to a foreign post of importance was about to be ratified, came into the corridor of a Washington hotel and stopped to speak with a lady for a few moments. During the whole conversation he kept his hat on his head and a cigar in the corner of his mouth. It happened that the lady was the wife of a prominent senator, and she lost no time in reporting the incident to her husband, who in turn brought the matter to the attention of certain of his colleagues with the result that the appointment did not go through.
It is not unlikely that this man thinks “politics played against him,” whereas the only factor against him was his exhibition of ill-breeding which proved him unsuitable to represent the dignity of his country.
Etiquette would not seem to play an important part in business, and yet no man can ever tell when its knowledge may be of advantage, or its lack may turn the scale against him. The man who remains “planted” in his chair when a lady (or an older man) speaks to him, who receives customers in his shirt sleeves, who does not take off his hat when talking with a lady and take his cigar out of his mouth when bowing or when addressing her, can never be sure that he is not preparing a witness for the prosecution.
When I teach etiquette in my business seminars, I start by focusing on a basic concept: The perspective of other people matters, especially in business. And that is precisely what Emily is pointing out in her story when she writes, “(he) can never be sure that he is not preparing a witness for the prosecution.” The fact that the other person in Emily’s story is not a boss or a client or a prospect or even a colleague really drives the point home.
When I say “other people” I am referring to the reality that all the people you interact with everyday develop opinions of you, and their opinions matter just as much as you business colleagues’ opinions matter. For instance, a person could be at a sporting event yelling obscenities at the officials or the opposing team or, perhaps, even their own team. How do his actions look to the person sitting a few seats away who, it turns out, is a prospective client, slated to meet the “yeller” the next day?
How other people see you in terms of your actions, your appearance and the words you use matters. Immediately or sometime in the future their observations about you may affect your success. You don’t want your actions, appearance or words to encourage them to be “a witness for the prosecution.”
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.