ho can forget the infamous business dinner scene from Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts’ character, even after a quick lesson in table manners, still has trouble figuring out which fork to use and sends escargot flying across the restaurant? Or when Rachel from Friends accidentally kisses her future boss during a job interview? Funny on film; not so funny in real life. More like uber-embarrassing.
Business etiquette—whether it’s while dining with a client, shaking hands with a future employer, balancing your business card, plate and wine glass at a networking event or traveling in a new country—can be confusing. So how do you navigate the waters of social propriety?
Just ask Simi Ranajee. The former Miss India Worldwide is a certified business image consultant and specializes in sharing her knowledge of etiquette, dining protocol and local and international social skills. Ranajee, who lives in Chicago, is also founder and president of Strut Inc., a consulting organization that helps women to develop those skills along with modeling, elegance, style and charm.
Ranajee’s own travels around the world—a result of winning the pageant—sparked her interest in learning how to be comfortable in different situations. “Etiquette is really being comfortable in your skin and in social situations, putting others at ease,” she says. “Everyone thinks etiquette has to be really pompous and uptight. It’s really not.”
Ranajee’s skills are in demand—she’s frequently sought as a speaker and workshop facilitator. “More and more corporations across the world are hiring people like me to come in and teach etiquette just to make sure they are represented correctly,” she says. “They want everyone from their new hires to CEOs to able to be at ease in different social and business situations.”
“Etiquette is really about being comfortable in your skin and in social situations, putting others at ease.”
The details of etiquette can help you to do just that—and prevent the occasional flying escargot. Here are seven common etiquette mistakes and the fixes that will have you dazzling clients and colleagues in no time.
Mistake: A limp, weak handshake.
Signal: A lack of confidence (and possibly a hand injury).
Quick Fix: According to Ranajee, the perfect handshake is firm but not too strong. She recommends three firm pumps and direct, strong eye contact. When meeting someone new, never release your grip mid-shake if they have not repeated your name after you’ve given it. And try not to shake hands with someone when you or the other person is sitting down. It creates an awkward height difference and implies a power advantage to the person standing up.
Although no one knows for sure when the first handshake took place, historians think the practice originated in medieval times as a way to check guests for weapons. By shaking hands, it showed your hands were weapons-free. There’s also speculation that the handshake evolved from the elbow to wrist pat down to check for knives and the shaking motion supposedly dislodged any weapons that might have been hidden in the sleeve. Of course, a modern-day handshake is just a way for two people to connect—and to let each other know that you mean business.
Some reading to get your business etiquette on:
Emily Post’s The Etiquette Advantage in Business by Peggy Post and Peter Post
A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux
Business Etiquette for Dummies by Sue Fox.
Mistake: Poor posture and looking down at the floor.
Signal: Once again, a lack of confidence (just not a hand injury).
Quick Fix: Ranajee says that South Asian women frequently tend to slouch. South Asian culture promotes humility and a downcast gaze because direct eye contact is considered disrespectful. Her trick for perfect posture at work, interviews and in life in general is to “Lift it, suck it, tuck it.” Keep your chin up and elongate the spine, suck in at the abs and tuck in your behind. When seated, keep no more than an arm’s length away from the table and place your forearms on the surface to help maintain an upright posture.
Mistake: Awkward networking event-itis—juggling a glass, plate and trying to shake hands, all while hiding your nametag and scanning the room for familiar faces before sprinting over to them.
Signal: You’re an awkward networker and you feel uncomfortable.
Quick Fix: Standing at a cocktail party or networking event can be difficult, especially when you’re trying to balance a number of things and still meet the maximum amount of people. Ranajee’s balancing act? “With one hand, hold your napkin between your pinky and ring finger. Hold your appetizer plate between your middle and index finger. Place your wineglass on top of your plate and use your thumb to balance the glass.” This allows your other hand to be free for shaking hands or handing out business cards.
And remember to always wear your nametag on the right and keep your refreshments to the left. That way, no one will miss seeing your very important name. Don’t forget the sparkling conversation: “When you’re at a networking event, you should be well versed in three different areas. It could be social, sports and foreign affairs. This way you are comfortable in any one of those conversations.”
Mistake: Disturbing your place setting before everyone else arrives during a business dinner.
Signal: You missed lunch, are hungry and can’t wait to eat, even if that means that not everyone is there.
Quick fix: “If you get to the table first, wait for everyone else, especially the host. Do not pick up your napkin, do not start eating the bread and do not order anything,” she says.
Mistake: Using your service fork for your salad or soup spoon (gasp!) to spread butter on your bread.
Signal: Oscar Wilde once said, “The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork.”
Quick Fix: If you’re curious about how long the dinner or meal is going to last, get to know the table map. The table map (or place setting) is your best friend and cheat sheet, Ranajee says. From the number of utensils on the table, you will know exactly how many courses will be served and how long the meal will be. She also says, “You can adjust your time and conversation to how the table map looks.”
Table map basics: Worst case, if you are not sure which utensils are for what portion of the meal, simply work from the outside in. Desert utensils are placed above the plate. Generally, your dinner fork will be closest to the plate and your salad fork the farthest away. Similarly, on the right side, your soup spoon will be the farthest and the dinner knife closest to the plate.
Playing host? Try this great trick: Make an “OK” signal with both hands. The left hand forms a “b” which indicates bread is on the left. The “d” made with the right hand shows that drinks are on the right. Red wine glasses are more round in shape, while white wine glasses look more like flutes. (As a general rule, let the host, employer or client initiate the alcohol order.)
If you drop a utensil, just let it go. Don’t try to pick it up. It will call attention to yourself, and you don’t want your boss to see you disappear under the table. Simply ask the waiter for a new one.
Mistake: Poor dining skills.
Signal: You were raised by wolves.
Quick Fix: Know the dining essentials before attending a business dinner:
• Pass the salt and pepper together. They are married and should always remain a couple.
• Pass items to the right. The flow of passing is always counterclockwise.
• When cutting food, do it delicately to avoid drawing attention to yourself. For American-style eating methods, the prongs of your fork should be up, if you are using the right hand for the fork and left hand for the knife. European style is a little different since the left hand holds the fork, and the right hand holds the knife. In that case, the prongs of the fork should be down. When your knife is resting, make sure the serrations face towards you. Historically, if the serrations face your neighbor, it implies a threat.
• If you drop a utensil, just let it go. Don’t try to pick it up. It will call attention to yourself, and you don’t want your boss to see you disappear under the table. Simply ask the waiter for a new one.
• Let your employer or whoever is organizing the dinner know of your food allergies or eating habits before the meal. For example, if you’re a vegetarian, make the host aware beforehand.
Mistake: Offending a foreign client or employer during international travel.
Signal: You didn’t do your homework.
Quick Fix: When traveling outside of the United States for work, always remember to learn as much as you can about the culture. Ranajee says that though good etiquette is recognized internationally, but you should also try adapting to local customs and traditions. Pay special attention to language (make an effort to learn as much as you can), holidays, time zones and work hours and of course food customs and table manners. Ranajee also recommends getting to know a local when traveling abroad. He or she will offer the best insight into how to dress, what is appropriate to give as a gift and the best places to try local fare.
While workplaces have become much less formal and more business takes place in social settings, Ranajee advises remembering the basics: Be courteous and thoughtful to the people around you and try to make others feel comfortable. Being nice—it sounds easy enough, but it’s easy to forget when you’re trying to advance your bottom line.