Good business etiquette is a must for business owners: it’s a simple but powerful code of behavior that makes those around you feel comfortable, welcome, and respected.
But the rules of business etiquette are always evolving, so it’s important to stay up to date. For example, you may have mastered the art of polite phone greetings, but now that people are texting, what do you do? You may know exactly where to put your napkin during a business lunch, but do you know exactly where to put your phone?
To answer these questions, we’ve put together a simple primer on business etiquette, including the basics of greetings, conversations, and email and text communication. (We won’t cover table manners here, however—an entire book can written on that topic alone, and many have been!).
Here are the basic business etiquette concepts you need to know:
Meeting & Greeting
- Make a great first impression. When you introduce yourself, use your first and last name. For example, “Hi, I’m Robert Smith. It’s great to meet you.” It’s a foolproof introduction that works well in both formal and casual settings. Also, stand up when meeting people for the first time. According to Barbara Patcher, author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette, “Standing helps establish your presence. You make it easy for others to ignore you if you don’t stand.”
- Get names right. Didn’t catch a person’s name? Simply say so and ask if they could repeat it. Then, use it during the conversation (without overdoing it, of course!). This is a nice way to make the other person feel special, and makes it much harder to forget their name next time!
- When in doubt, make the introduction. If you aren’t sure whether people know each other, go ahead and introduce them. You can say, “Bob, have you met Joanna? Joanna is our new account manager. Joanna, Bob is the VP of Operations.” Don’t assume that people have already met; make a brief introduction to make everyone feel welcome and valued.
- Shake hands. No matter how casual or formal a setting is, a handshake is always appropriate. The person with more seniority should be the first to reach out their hand.
- Don’t interrupt. Resist the urge to jump in while someone else is talking. Instead, show that you’re interested in what they have to say by listening, waiting for them to finish their thought, and asking great questions or building on what they just said.
- Avoid gossip. Don’t gossip about other people with colleagues and customers. While you may feel like you’re “connecting” over a particularly juicy morsel of information, in reality gossip only reflects poorly on you.
- Resist the urge to look at your phone. When you’re talking to another person, glancing at your phone is the digital equivalent of glancing around the room to see if there’s someone better to talk to. It makes the other person feel unimportant and insignificant. Honor them with your full attention. (And if you’re sharing a meal together, don’t leave your phone out on the table, right next to your plate. Stash it out of sight and check it later.).
- Politely wrap up the conversation. If you need to leave the conversation, wait until it’s your turn to speak, and say, “It was really nice to meet you,” or “I’m glad we could catch up.” Then, end the conversation graciously. For example, you can say, “I’m going to let you mingle, but I hope we run into each other again next week.”
- Always acknowledge people, even if you’re busy. Whether you’re pacing through the hallway with your phone to your ear or rushing off to a meeting, if someone you know walks past, be sure to acknowledge them. You don’t have to strike up a conversation, but a small nod or quick hello lets them know you see them and value them.
- Respond promptly. It can be challenging to respond to messages promptly, especially if you have what seems like a bottomless inbox. Nevertheless, you should try to respond to emails within 24 hours. If you can’t write a full response at the moment, send a quick note letting the person know that you received their message and will get back to them soon.
- Read and re-read. Read your emails carefully before sending them. Autocorrect can sneak truly strange stuff into your messages, and typos aren’t always flagged. Before you hit send, check that your grammar, spelling, and tone are on target.
- Write a clear subject line. Use a clear subject line that immediately lets people know what your email is about.
- Be selective about “Reply All.” Don’t clog people’s inboxes by replying all to emails they really don’t want or need.
- Get permission to make an introduction. Always make sure that it’s OK to introduce two people over email. Send an individual note to each of them first, and get their permission.
- Never email while angry. Got upsetting news? Give yourself a chance to cool off before composing a response—it’s best to let the offending email sit for a day or two while you get some distance (and perspective).
- Assume that everything you write will be made public. Never write something you wouldn’t mind having reprinted in the national news. Emails inevitably get forwarded to other people, and email servers get hacked—assume that this will happen to you in the future, and check your tone and content accordingly.
- Spell it out. Err on the side of spelling things out. Only use shortcuts if you’re certain that the other person will understand them or if they have set a precedent by using those terms. Otherwise, remove the acronyms and abbreviations and type out the entire word.
- Be aware of tone. When you text, you don’t have the benefit of voice or body language cues to help convey what you really mean. That means your messages—especially if they’re short and abrupt—can come across as harsh. Write in complete sentences whenever possible, and make sure you use “please’ and “thank you” to add warmth.
- Leave the big news for a real conversation. Texting is a great way to stay in touch about little things, but it’s too casual for important conversations. If you have big (or bad) news to deliver, save it for an in-person meeting or a phone call.
- Don’t hide under the table. Stop texting under the table during meetings. It is distracting and rude, and tells people that you don’t care about them or what they’re saying. Yes, that phone may be out of sight, but your body language still gives you away.
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