Modern Rules of Etiquette in Work and Social Situation


It is important to note that etiquette in other cultures requires a bit of adaptation and flexibility. If you are traveling on business to a foreign destination, or have visitors, it is a good idea to learn as much as you can about the culture they are coming from and make appropriate allowances.

What you should consider:

  • Language (make an effort to learn theirs if possible, but do not pretend to be fluent unless you have many years of study under your belt!)
  • Time zones
  • Working schedules
  • Holidays
  • Food customs (table manners, use of implements, etc.). Generally speaking, as long as you are trying to be considerate and express an interest in learning, you should be fine. If in doubt, err on the conservative formal side.

The Workplace

The remainder of this article is divided into two sections – The Workplace and Social Situations. The division is really for convenience only, since with less formal workplaces and more business seeming to take place in social situations now then ever before, the lines get blurred.


If a subject is important enough to call a meeting, be considerate of the participants’time and ensure that it is well prepared.

Communicate beforehand:

  • The objective
  • The expected duration (Be sure to observe the ending time scrupulously, unless everyone agrees to continue)
  • Items expected to be discussed

Often overlooked – be sure to THANK meeting members for their time and participation, and demonstrate (in the minutes or written record, at least) how their contributions helped to meet the objective of the meeting. Participants are frequently left wondering if they have been heard or if their attendance and contributions were noticed. Distribute minutes or some written record (no matter how simple the meeting) to all attendees and absentees, with concise but complete descriptions of decisions made and including action items.

Never assign an action item to a person who is not present to negotiate it, unless you absolutely have to. Note in the minutes that the person has not been notified, and will be contacted for a final disposition of the item.

The Phone

Always return calls. Even if you do not yet have an answer to the caller’s question, call and explain what you are doing to get the requested information, or direct them to the appropriate place to get it.

If you are going to be out, have someone pick up your calls or at a minimum, have your answering system tell the caller when you will be back in the office and when they can expect a call back.

When you are on the receiving end of a phone call, identify yourself and your department. Answer the phone with some enthusiasm or at least warmth, even if you ARE being interrupted, the person on the other end does not know that!

Make sure your voice mail system is working properly and does not tell the caller that the mailbox is full, transfer them to nowhere, or ring indefinitely. Address technical and system problems a rude machine or system is as unacceptable as a rude person.

Personalize the conversation. Many people act in electronic media (including phone, phone mail, end e-mail) the way they act in their cars. They feel since they are not face-to-face with a person, it is perfectly acceptable to be abrupt, crass, or rude. We need to ensure that we make best use of the advantages of these media without falling headfirst into the disadvantages.


Make the subject line specific. Think of the many messages you are received with the generic subject line, “Hi” or “Just for you.”

Do not forward messages with three pages of mail-to information before they get to the content. In the message you forward, delete the extraneous information such as all the “Memo to”, subject, addresses, and date lines.

When replying to a question, copy only the question into your e-mail, then provide your response. You need not hit reply automatically, but do not send a bare message that only reads, “Yes.” It is too blunt and confuses the reader.

Address and sign your e-mails. Although this is included in the To and From sections, remember that you are communicating with a person, not a computer.

DO NOT TYPE IN ALL CAPS. IT IS TOO INTENSE, and you appear too lazy to type properly. This is still a written medium. Follow standard writing guidelines as a professional courtesy.

Social Settings

Many impressions formed during a party, dinner or golf game can make or break a key business arrangement, whether or not business is discussed directly. Always carry business cards. Arrive at a party at the stated time or up to 30 minutes later. (Not earlier than the stated time, under any circumstances.)


Keep notes on people. There are several “contact management” software applications that are designed for salespeople, but in business, nearly everyone is a salesperson in some capacity or another. They help you create a “people database” with names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, spouse and children’s names; whatever depth of information is appropriate for your situation.
Before an event, use your address book or your “people database” to refresh your memory about the people you are likely to meet.

If you forget someone’s name, you can sometimes “cover” by introducing a person you do know first “Do you know my Joe Smith, one of our account reps?” which will usually get the unknown person to introduce him or herself.
If this does not work, an admission that you have had a mental block id preferable to obvious flailing around.

Table Manners

These apply to the Americas and most of Europe. If you are elsewhere, do some research beforehand.
The fork goes on the left. The spoon and knife go on the right. Food items go on the left, so your bread plate is on your left. Drinks, including coffee cups, should be on the right. When sitting at a banquet table, you may begin eating when two people to your left and right are served. If you have not been served, but most of your table has, encourage others to start. Reach only for items in front of you ask that other items be passed by a neighbor. Offer to the left; pass to the right, although once things start being passed, go with the flow.

This is a lot to consider, and there is a lot more out there. Volumes of information have been written on what is right and correct in business etiquette. It is enough to make veterans and newcomers too insecure to deal with people.

Since you are human, there will be times when you step on toes, forget an importance name, pop off with a harsh comment, or (heaven forbid!) use the wrong fork. We all do. This is real life, and we are all making it up as we go along.

The important thing to remember is that if you strive to make the people around you feel comfortable and valued, you have succeeded whether you are perfectly in compliance with these or any rules you have read.


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