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Business etiquette is one of the most important and underrated dimensions of professional success. As an individual, you can have all the education and expertise in the world, but if your business etiquette is lacking, it can derail your career. And even for large organizations conducting major deals, all the pieces can be perfectly in place, but a lapse in business etiquette can threaten a mutually beneficial arrangement and nullify months of effort.
In this article, we’ll give you a primer on everything you need to know about business etiquette, and we’ll offer some helpful business etiquette tips, so you can be sure to set yourself up for success in any professional environment you enter.
What Is Business Etiquette?
First let’s ask the obvious question: what is business etiquette? In general, business etiquette refers to a set of unwritten manners, norms, and expectations for behavior and communication in a business context. Business etiquette not only differs from the normal social expectations people have of one another outside the workplace. Business etiquette can also differ from one organization to the next, and even more so from one country to the next.
Business etiquette is not simply some stuffy set of rules and formalities. It has a real purpose. Practicing proper business etiquette helps companies uphold a positive image externally, and internally, it creates an environment of mutual respect and unity that fosters effective communication and collaboration. Business etiquette helps workplace operations run smoothly and it minimizes unnecessary problems.
Types of Business Etiquette
There are many different types of business etiquette, which vary from context to context. In this section, we’ll walk you through some of the most common and important forms of business etiquette, so you can operate as effectively as possible.
Business Email Etiquette
With so much business being conducted online, business email etiquette is highly important. Writing can be an extremely sensitive and delicate medium, and failing to consider the skills and practices of proper etiquette runs the risk of sending unintentionally rude or problematic messages.
For both internal and external communications, you should consult your organization’s rules for email usage. Following these rules will help ensure you’re not unknowingly violating any expectations, ethical codes, or even laws.
There are other standards of communication for business email etiquette that make it different from other ways you might use email. For example, it’s important to always include a subject line—this helps the recipient efficiently understand the relevance of your message and categorize it appropriately. You should strive to be brief but pleasant, which can be a delicate balance. Being too brief can run the risk of sounding rude. Spending too much time on pleasantries can convey a lack of respect for the recipient’s time. You should also be highly attentive to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Avoid making mistakes, which signal unskillfulness and unprofessionalism. At the same time, punctuation plays a big role in creating the tone of the message.
Always remember that your work email is for work, and not private communications. In fact, it’s likely that your employer has access to all your email communications, which is important to keep in mind.
Business Dinner Etiquette
Business dinner etiquette can be tricky to master. It may seem silly, but lots of important business exchanges occur over dinner, and it’s very important to avoid creating unnecessary discomfort by failing to adhere to proper business dinner etiquette. Here are some standard rules and conventions to keep in mind.
- If one person or party is the clear host/ess of the dinner, wait for them to start eating before you do. If no one is the clear host/ess, wait for everyone to be served before you start eating.
- Don’t take out or use your phone during the meal.
- Try to avoid ordering messy foods.
- If you need to get up to use the bathroom, try to do so between courses.
- For any shared items or condiments, offer them first to the person to your left, then serve yourself, then pass to the right.
- Avoid controversial topics like religion or politics.
- Remember that the business dinner is ultimately about the people and the business at hand—not the food—so avoid making the meal the primary object of your attention.
- Be respectful of your server.
Business Meeting Etiquette
Business meeting etiquette is another delicate area. If you’re running the meeting, it’s particularly important to avoid offending or inconveniencing people. Here are some helpful business meeting etiquette tips to follow:
- Always send a memo describing the meeting agenda beforehand, so attendees have a chance to prepare.
- If there are any new people in the meeting, be sure to introduce them to everyone.
- Give everyone 5 minutes to settle in before starting the meeting.
- Set out a clear agenda and set of objectives for the meeting in advance
- Give everyone present a chance to participate, either by calling on them or by going around in a circle.
- When other people are speaking, be sure to offer non-verbal acknowledgement, like eye contact and nodding.
- Avoid fidgeting or other behaviors that signal either nervousness or impatience.
- If the meeting is scheduled during lunch hours, provide catering or else invite people to bring their lunches.
- Structure the meeting in such a way as to avoid interruptions—this is especially important for virtual meetings.
International Business Etiquette
Sometimes our work requires us to meet with people from foreign countries. In these situations, international business etiquette applies. This is extremely important to consider, since the codes of business etiquette can vary significantly from country to country, and the last thing you want is to blow a deal by offending a potential partner.
- When conducting a virtual meeting, be mindful of time zone differences, so you don’t expect your partners to be up and conducting business in the middle of the night.
- Also for virtual meetings, be sure to test your equipment beforehand—the last thing you want to do is waste people’s time because of inadequate preparation and technical difficulties.
- Most importantly, research the international business etiquette expectations that apply for any country you’re visiting or dealing with. Many countries have contradictory codes of etiquette. For example, in the US, it’s important to maintain eye contact, but in some other countries, this is considered rude. In France, you’re not necessarily expected to speak French, but you are expected to begin a conversation by apologizing for not being able to speak French. In Russia, you are expected to be on time, but your Russian counterparts may be as late as they please, and you’re expected to wait.
Business Etiquette Tips
While business etiquette varies from context to context, there are some general business etiquette tips you can keep in mind, which will help you in any professional setting.
- Always be punctual.
- Always be dressed appropriately, though the dress code will be different in different contexts.
- Address people by their formal titles (e.g. Mr., Ms., Doctor, etc.) until they invite you to address them otherwise.
- Polite language—such as a simple please and thank you—goes a long way.
- Respectfully acknowledge whoever you’re dealing with through body language, eye contact, and directly addressing them.
- When invited to something, be sure to RSVP with a clear yes or no.
- Upon first meeting someone, be sure to offer a smile and a firm handshake.
- Follow up with colleagues and partners through thank-you notes, letters of appreciation, as well as notes offering congratulations or condolences when appropriate.
- Be respectful of other people’s time when you need their attention—knock on doors before entering, and ask people whether they have the time to speak before engaging them in the topic of conversation.
- Respect shared spaces—like copy rooms, lounges, bathrooms, and kitchens—by practicing cleanliness and consideration.
- Practice building your emotional IQ by considering how your words and actions will impact other people before engaging them.
- In new settings, do your research—read up on the expectations specific to a certain industry or country. If you’re starting in a new office, pay attention to how your co-workers speak and act, and don’t be afraid to ask questions to make sure you’re not offending anyone.
People often speak of the ways that common courtesy is being lost in our culture, but it’s still as important as ever to practice proper business etiquette in any professional context. Business etiquette allows people to maintain an environment of respect, while also facilitating effective communication, unity, good will, and efficient operations. Being attentive and considerate as you conduct yourself in a professional setting will go a long way toward helping you embark on a successful career.