Strike out: (from left) British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and US President Barack Obama pose for a selfie, sitting next to US First Lady Michelle Obama, during the memorial service for South Africa’s former president, Nelson Mandela, on 10 December. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
Strike out: (from left) British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and US President Barack Obama pose for a selfie, sitting next to US First Lady Michelle Obama, during the memorial service for South Africa’s former president, Nelson Mandela, on 10 December. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP

In the matter of manners

Notions of proper behaviour may change around the world but 8 rules of work etiquette remain relevant everywhere

When the leader of the free world gets called out by his wife for inappropriate behaviour while at work, you know there is an etiquette epidemic that transcends age, status and nationality. “Selfies" by world leaders at memorial services aside, minding your manners in this increasingly multicultural and constantly connected world has never been trickier. What works in Japan doesn’t cut ice in Germany. Hey, what works in Jaipur doesn’t work in Jalgaon.

Given the speed at which news now travels, the fallout of a false step can be far-reaching, instant and fatal. How you look, what you say, how you say it, when you say it, all influence how you are perceived. And as we know, perception often defines reality.

Here are eight rules that never vary, no matter where you are.

1. Lets start with grooming: Apart from the obvious—stay clean, get a haircut, keep your shirt on—there is much to be said for power dressing. Dress conservatively and appropriately, take cues from seniors in your space, make sure your shoes and accessories match. Develop your own style by all means, but do think of what a scruffy muffler over a grubby sweater does for your credibility if you aim to run the country, for example.

2. Meeting and greeting: Always tricky in the increasingly multicultural business world. At business meetings in four countries in as many weeks, I was greeted by (and dispensed) hugs, pecks on one cheek, both cheeks, three times (Dutch), handshakes, a bow, nods and ‘namastes’ from a bewildering array of nationalities. Don’t get lost in hello hell; follow the lead of your host. A medium-firm handshake, a friendly nod and a smile usually does the trick.

3.Being on time: We all joke about Indian Stretchable Time. Most cultures inculcate a fear of being late—yet, in our country, there seems to be a pathological fear of being even 5 minutes early. Being late is just plain disrespectful. Yes, traffic sucks. Client calls overrun. Plan for it. Call ahead if you are running late.

4. Being present: Once there, do focus on the people you are meeting—the tolerance for cellphones on the table is generally higher in Asia than elsewhere, but it is just considered plain rude to keep taking calls or checking email. Keep cellphones on silent or schedule phone breaks during long meetings. And while on phone etiquette, don’t cell–yell in the corridors, keep yourself on mute during conference calls (unless you are speaking, of course) and please save the Bollywood item-number ringtones for your personal phone.

5. Writing right: Conversely, smartphones and predictive text seem to have significantly dumbed down written communication skills. Feel free to use the grammar and spellcheck features to make your meaning clear. If you are unsure about how to address a professional contact, be conservative. Filter your output— imagine you are writing an old-fashioned letter on paper. Reread and check the intonation, and while being direct is good, make sure your tone “travels well".

6. Rules of engagement: There are cultural differences—not just by nationality, but by industry and company, in meetings or otherwise. Be aware of who speaks first, when it’s okay to cut in, how much airspace to take up. Look to your colleagues for nuances and cues, but being considerate, calm and poised is always a good thing, across situations. Do acknowledge contributions, share knowledge and resolve conflicts by tackling the problem, not attacking the people.

7. Getting back: Our cellphones compel us to be switched on 24x7. An email at 1am doesn’t always warrant an instant response—switch off, but do abide by the industry’s norms. More importantly, do get back. Don’t constantly leave people guessing, close the loop within an acceptable time frame, even if it’s to say you don’t have news yet, or that you aren’t buying.

8. Watch your tweetiquette: Posts about AIDS in Africa, a badly expressed political view on Facebook, an inappropriate selfie can go viral and cause much professional damage— and the social media never dies. Young or old, be advised that you will be googled up for posterity, so audit your digital footprint regularly. Express yourself, but use “filters" before you post—are you comfortable if your boss sees it? Mother? Children? The person you are commenting on, face-to-face? Use privacy settings, firewall the personal from the professional.

Etiquette, at work or otherwise, usually does come down to the manners they taught you at kindergarten—be on time, say please, apologize quickly when you mess up, and always say thank you. Be respectful and authentic. And save the selfies for the Oscars.

Sonal Agrawal is managing partner, Accord India, an executive search firm.

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