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Business Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide

Do you know the rules of business etiquette? Most people are aware of these unwritten rules -- at least when they’re violated. Maybe you’ve cringed when a coworker acted rudely or felt uncomfortable when a prospect said something inappropriate.

But noticing these mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not making any. Professional expectations and unwritten rules change all the time (and there may be some you never learned in the first place).

Your relationships with buyers will suffer if you act strangely or rudely. To make sure your behavior and manners are always correct, check out these guidelines.

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Business etiquette tips

Although these aren’t iron-clad rules, sticking to them will serve you well.

1) Ask the right way.

Hoping for a favor or slot on another person’s calendar? Don’t be vague or unclear when you ask. This might seem respectful -- you’re requesting their time or help, so you want to let them set the terms -- but it actually puts more work on their plate.

Instead of asking, “Would you be open to getting coffee sometime soon?” ask, “Could we go to Goodbarrow Coffee on Tuesday to discuss launch campaigns?”

If that works for the person, it’s an easy yes. If it doesn’t, they can simply propose a more convenient time and/or place.

2) Introduce yourself properly.

When someone new enters the room, stand up to shake their hand. This shows respect.

You should also say your full name (first and last).

And even though HubSpot sales director Dan Tyre might exclusively use the fist bump, you shouldn’t try to get away with the same behavior. Always shake hands. The one exception? If you have a contagious illness. Say, “It’s great to meet you, [name]. I’d shake your hand, but I’m unfortunately getting over [sickness] and I’d hate to pass it your way.”

3) Watch the clock.

Being on time is common courtesy. After all, tardiness tells those you’re meeting that you value your time more than you value theirs. You should always give yourself enough time between commitments that you won’t be late even if your meeting runs over, you hit traffic, you can’t find your destination, etc.

That being said, occasionally running late is inevitable. Give the other people as much advance notice as possible. As soon as you know you’re probably not going to make it, call or email them.

Finally, end meetings on time -- or even earlier. You’ll earn a lot of goodwill by finishing a planned hour-long conversation 10 minutes early.

4) Put your devices away.

Even if everyone you see is glued to their phone, stash yours away. Listening to music, scrolling through social media, and sending messages gives the impression you don’t want to be disturbed -- which can seem standoffish and destroys the probability anyone will start a conversation with you.

“Watercooler chat” is still one of the best ways to forge connections with your coworkers. Don’t miss this opportunity just because you’re reading yet another debate on Reddit.

5) Don’t dress too casually.

Now that super laid-back offices are the norm, it’s tempting to adopt a year-round wardrobe of flip flops, shorts or jeans, t-shirts, etc. If you regularly talk to prospects, make sure you’re as formal -- if not more -- than them. Do they wear business casual? Change into slacks and a nice shirt before you meet them, or (if you’re having a virtual meeting) keep a button-up at your desk so you look formal from the waist up.

You should also model your style after your manager’s. Strive for their level of formality -- it won’t steer you wrong.

6) Don’t interrupt.

No matter how passionate or enthusiastic you get, try to let others speak without breaking in. Interruptions tell people you think your opinion is better or more valid than theirs.

Tempted to cut in? Write down your thought (if you’re worried you’ll forget it), and take a deep breath. Then wait until they’re fully finished to express what’s on your mind.

7) Don’t say “I’m going to the bathroom.”

This is considered impolite. Instead, simply say “Excuse me,” and walk away.

8) Ask how people want to communicate.

Some people want to text. Others would be horrified to get a message notification from you. Others would prefer to communicate solely by email. Still others like talking on the phone.

The point is, everyone has a different communication style. Don’t assume your prospects, coworkers, and manager want to speak just like you do -- ask, “What’s the best way to [stay in touch, give you updates, discuss X]?” Whichever channel they pick, do your best to use it.

9) Practice polite exits.

You never want to leave while the other person is talking, since you may give the impression you’re bored. Instead, wait until you’re speaking. Then wrap up your thought and say, “Thanks for your time -- it was great to [meet you, see you again]. I’ll let you [find your seat, talk to some other folks, go now].”

10) Use people’s names.

As Dale Carnegie said, "A person's name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language."

Listen carefully to a person’s name when they’re being introduced to you. If you’re not sure you heard correctly, say, “I didn’t catch that. Can you please repeat your name?”

Say their name throughout the conversation. (Just make sure you don’t go overboard -- if you’re using it in every response, you’ll seem cheesy and forced.)

Next time you meet the person, make them feel special by greeting them by name. Completely spaced? Say, “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name. Could you please remind me?”

11) Stay engaged.

Chances are, you’ve talked to someone at a networking event or conference who’s clearly not interested in you. They’re scanning the room looking for their next target -- typically someone who (they perceive as) more important or well-connected. It doesn’t feel good.

Don’t poison any wells. If you’re speaking to someone, stay focused on them. You might quickly discover they’re not the best person for you to talk to; when that’s the case, politely excuse yourself.

12) Keep your commitments.

Your word is your most valuable currency. If you’ve promised to do something, you should always honor that promise.

Maybe you’ve told a new connection you’ll forward her your favorite podcasts. Take some time the next day to shoot her an email. Or perhaps you’ve agreed to review someone’s resume. After the event, send an email saying it was nice to meet him and you’re happy to look at his application materials if he wants to forward them.

Consistently following through will do wonders for your reputation and relationships.

Business meal rules

1) Don’t sit alone.

If you get to the restaurant before the rest of your party, wait for everyone else to arrive before you sit down.

2) Pass dishes counterclockwise.

When several dishes are going around the table at once, it’s customary to pass them counterclockwise (or from left to right.)

That being said, if dishes are already circulating clockwise, you shouldn’t break the pattern. And if you’re only passing one thing -- and it’s to someone on your left -- pass it to the left directly rather than all the way around the table.

3) Don’t pull out the chair for someone else.

It’s considered rude to pull out someone’s chair for them. They’re perfectly capable of doing it themselves.

4) Follow the host’s lead.

What you should order depends on what the other people at the table are ordering. If they order appetizers and entrees, get an appetizer and main as well. They won’t be forced to eat by themselves.

Pro tip: Whether you’re the host or the guest, order last so you can follow your dining partner’s lead. Just say, “I’m still deciding” when the server walks up.

5) Don’t order the most expensive thing.

When it’s on someone else’s dime, you may be eager to order the priciest thing on the menu.

Most of the time, this seems tone-deaf. Copy what your host does. If they’re ordering filet mignon, you can too. If they’re sticking with a salad, aim for a similarly affordable option.

6) Break bread with your hands

This rule might surprise you. Isn’t it rude to eat with your hands? Not when it’s a bread roll. You’re supposed to break it in half with your hands. Tear off one piece at a time as you eat it.

7) Sit down on the left

I speak from experience: Bumping into another person at the table is awkward and embarrassing. Fortunately, there’s a rule to save you from these literal run-ins. Sit down from the left and stand up from the right.

8) Pass the salt and the pepper.

Someone might ask for “the salt.” Pass the shaker -- and the pepper shaker, too. The two should never be separated.

9) Don’t call your server.

Need something from the server? Avoid verbally hailing them, as it’s too aggressive. Wait until they pass by you and make eye contact. If you’ve tried that and failed, raise a hand.

10) Don’t take your leftovers home.

You’re focusing on the people you’re with, so you barely touch your (expensive) meal. Should you ask the server for a to-go box?

Absolutely not. In a professional setting, it’s considered a major faux pas to take home food. If you think you’re not going to eat a lot, order something light.

11) Have the host pay.

Whoever invited the other(s) pays. Do you suspect your guest may attempt to push back on this? Pay in advance: Just give the restaurant your credit card number and ask to charge the meal (plus tip).

12) Leave a good tip.

Stinginess is never a good look, especially when you’re eating with someone who wants to hire, buy from, or work with you. Leave a 15-20% tip for good service and a 25% one for great service. (This percentage changes depending on the country. For example, in Europe people usually don’t tip at all.)

Business etiquette books

1) The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success

Barbara Pachter dives into the topics essential to success that you’ll rarely learn about in business school: Establishing strong relationships, dressing professionally, using social media correctly, speaking assertively, writing well, delivering effective presentations, and more.

Her writing style is straightforward and practical, so you can quickly get the answers you want. Pachter also calls upon relevant examples to illustrate her points, making this book entertaining and memorable.

"The pragmatic advice Barbara offers is sure to meaningfully help people be more confident and effective in multiple business situations," says Elizabeth Walker, vice president of global talent management at Campbell Soup Company.

2) Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace

In this best-selling book, Christine Porath builds a business case for civility. Not only will you learn how courtesy helps your company’s bottom line (and on an individual basis, your salary) you’ll also learn how civil you are and where you can improve.

Porath draws on scientific research from the fields of neuroscience, medicine, and psychology along with pop culture.

"In her important new book, Christine Porath incisively explores the epidemic of incivility that has infected our workplaces and lives," says Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of Drive and To Sell is Human. "But rather than simply decry the disease, Porath offers bright, brilliant suggestions for a cure. For anyone troubled by our current culture of coarseness -- and that should be all of us -- Mastering Civility is the right book at the right time. It is a must read for every leader in every field."

3)The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice

If you’re only going to read one book on business etiquette, consider Jeffrey L. Seglin’s quick yet impactful guide. Seglin is a weekly ethics columnist and Harvard lecturer. He uses his extensive knowledge of social expectations and workplace norms, as well as common sense, to explain how you should act in tricky situations.

"With a great sense of humor, sage advice, and practical tips, Jeffrey L. Seglin reminds us to overcome the complexities of the modern workplace and get back to the basics," says Melodie Jackson, associate dean for communications and public affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Business etiquette around the world

These tips apply in the United States, but it’s worth noting that business etiquette varies dramatically around the world.

For example, in Brazil it’s customary to stand very close to the other person and make physical contact. Doing so shows you trust them and forges a stronger connection. If you did the same in America, you’d probably make people incredibly uncomfortable.

In China, you should bring a small present from your country to meetings. They’ll reject the present three times before finally taking it to avoid seeming overeager. If you want to avoid offending them, keep pressing. Again, this would be strange behavior in the States.

The point is, never assume your assumptions about courtesy hold true in another place. Do your research before you go so you’re well-prepared for different customs.

Why is etiquette important? Beyond the obvious -- you want people to like and respect you -- having good manners helps put those around you at ease. If you’re polite, they’ll feel comfortable. If you’re impolite, they’ll want to leave your presence as soon as possible. Put some effort into being courteous. It’s worth it.

HubSpot CRM

Business Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide

Do you know the rules of business etiquette? Most people are aware of these unwritten rules -- at least when they’re violated. Maybe you’ve cringed when a coworker acted rudely or felt uncomfortable...Read more

A Visual Guide to International Business Etiquette [Infographic]

When in Rome, do as the Romans do … especially if you want the Romans to buy what you’re selling.Almost three-fourths of the world’s spending power is outside the U.S., and exports total 13.8% of our...Read more