A Question of Etiquette

A friend and colleague had an issue come up and asked for my advice.  Actually, we were with a group of people, so she may have been asking their advice and had no choice but to include me in the mix.  Nonetheless, she had an interesting experience that brought forth the issue of business etiquette. 

She was meeting a person for the first time.  He was meeting with them as part of an interview process for a role with her company.  As they shook hands, he reached out with his left hand and grabbed her elbow. 

This action may seem innocuous.  Certainly, I am sure that others have shook hands in this manner.  But for her, it was off-putting.  She felt uncomfortable.  And she wondered whether she was being sensitive or if the extra touching was in fact some infraction of business etiquette.

To be honest, I have no idea.  And to be even more honest, I don’t think it matters.  The point is that he was there to make a good impression and apply for a job.  What he ended up doing was making someone uncomfortable who would have a role in that decision.  I am assuming that he was hoping to do the opposite. 

Is business etiquette simply good manners, or are there tried and true rules on eating, greeting, touching, speaking, and the list continues.  There are certainly plenty of books and websites dedicated to business etiquette.  Even the Emily Post Institute, the guru of all things protocol, has a book, “The Etiquette Advantage in Business,” implying that good behavior in business provides a profitable impact. 

In my research on business etiquette, one person describes etiquette as the “perception impact.”  I like this.  Perception impact means that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do something, but that every business action – including shaking hands – can and is perceived by another.   Like everything else in business and in life, another person’s perception can indeed become your reality.

The lesson to be learned here is to think twice about how our actions can be interpreted.  If you are at a business dinner and your table manners are not up to par with your guests, will they perceive you to be as sloppy in your business?    If you are introducing an important client to others in your company with a simple “Hey, this is Jane,” will she interpret your casualness as disrespect?  Or if you are greeting a potential colleague by grabbing her elbow when you shake hands, will she mistake friendly eagerness for pushiness or superiority?

Maybe, maybe not.  But do you really want to chance it?

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