Beware The Witness For The Prosecution

One of my favorite examples of business etiquette in action comes from Emily Post’s Etiquette, first edition. She starts the business chapter with the following example in order to set the stage for her business etiquette advice: How other people perceive you in business is critical to your success.

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…

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.

In business, how other people see you matters even more than how you see yourself. Imagine for a moment that as you get dressed for work you look in the mirror and think to yourself, “I look pretty great today.” Yet, when you walk into a meeting room the looks on peoples’ faces clearly indicate that they’re thinking, “Why on earth is he/she dressed like that?” Like the cigar-chomping, hat-wearing man in Emily’s story, you have a problem. It is the perspective of the other person in the relationship that is important, and it is how they see you that can govern whether you are successful or not.

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During seminar Q&A sessions I wonder at times about the rationale behind a question like, “Do I have to stand if someone enters my office?” While you might not stand for a colleague who is in and out routinely, a unique visitor should be accorded the respect that standing imparts. The alternative, not standing, could have the same effect on your visitor as the cigar-chomper’s actions had on the senator’s wife. The clothes you wear, the language you use, the actions you take—these all affect how people perceive you and, in turn, affect whether they will want to work with you, hire, you or promote you. Perspective matters.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Peter: @PeterLPost.

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