“Etiquette is defined as societal norms of politeness, so of course those norms change over time,” says Akilah Easter, a Chicago etiquette expert and owner of EtiquetteFemme.
Here’s some easy-to-understand guidance on the proper etiquette for seven common situations.
When in Doubt, Shake on It
In our increasingly informal society, just greeting one another can be confusing. When President Obama entered the House chamber this January to deliver the State of the Union Address, he shook hands with the men lining the aisle, but hugged and kissed all the women. When did a smooch become the accepted way to greet a U.S. congresswoman? According to Easter, it isn’t.
“In a professional setting, you wouldn’t kiss your coworkers,” Easter says. “President Obama is known as a more casual president, but he’s still considered their superior. If your boss kissed you on the cheek at work, you would be taken aback.”
Professionally, the correct way to greet both men and women is with a firm handshake.
Elbows on the Table
We’re getting more relaxed at the table as well. Professional branding consultant Patricia Cook of Wilmette says that when dining, it’s fine to rest your elbows on the table between courses. And in a meeting, she says, spreading your elbows can actually serve as a competitive advantage.
“You don’t want to look arrogant, but taking up space at the table is considered a power pose and conveys confidence and status,” Cook says. “It also shows engagement and active listening.”
Text messaging used to be considered a casual way to stay in touch with pals, but it’s increasingly popular in more formal situations. Many young professionals actually prefer texts to emails and voicemail because they can access and reply to them quickly. Still, before you shoot your new contact a text, be sure to follow these guidelines:
1) Ask permission first
2) Give your name up front
3) Text within business hours,
4) Don’t assume your message will be seen immediately
5) Never text bad news
6) Keep it short
7) Avoid slang and typos
Put the Phone Down
We rely on our smartphones to connect and inform us, but there are times when using them is flat-out rude. “I think more people are using their cell phones as security blankets,” Easter says. “They pull them out when they’re in an uncomfortable situation.”
When you’re eating with friends, mingling at a party or involved in any form of face-to-face conversation, show good social skills and put your phone away. Constantly checking it signals that whatever message you might be receiving is more important than the person in front of you.
“If you absolutely must use your phone, apologize, excuse yourself, and do it elsewhere,” Cook says.
Chivalry Isn’t Dead
Not long ago, etiquette dictated that a man hold the door open for a woman, help her on with her coat and pull out her chair. Today, the professional world is gender neutral, says Cook, and these acts of politeness can be used by anyone – man or woman – as long as they are applied consistently. So, if you’re holding the door for a female colleague, then hold it for your male colleague as well.
Outside of work, some women appreciate gentlemanly behavior and others are insulted by it. Easter advises men to carefully gauge the woman he’s with and see how she responds to his gestures. Her advice for women: “There are subtle ways to let a person know what you prefer.” And when it comes to courting, here’s a progressive development – it’s totally appropriate for a woman to ask a man out on a date.
Quiet About Your Diet
These days everyone seems to have a food allergy or special dietary restriction, which can make gathering for a meal a problem. The polite way to handle this situation, agree both Cook and Easter, is that if it’s your restriction, it’s your responsibility. This means taking steps to notify your hostess upfront, check the restaurant menu online ahead of time, or even eat at home beforehand. Once you’re at the table, don’t put a damper on the meal by talking about what you can’t eat. Really, no one cares about your paleo-low-carb-juice cleanse.
Yo, Don’t Be Too Chill
This last one’s a piece of advice to the Millennials out there. Older generations didn’t grow up in as casual a society as you did. So, when interacting with older people – especially those who are senior to you at work – realize that your laid-back communication style and relaxed attire may work against you. Behave more respectfully and dress more conservatively that you normally would – at least until you’ve got the lay of the land.