I’ve spent much of my working life answering questions about protocol, addressing often sticky issues that can impede civility and courteous communication. First as a U.S. State Department protocol officer, then as the founder of the special events management organization Practical Protocol, and most recently as the author of Civility Rules!. I’ve studied the etiquette and best practices that ensure clear and straightforward engagement, whether between diplomats at an embassy dinner or colleagues brainstorming a new product launch.
While the core principles of civility—courtesy, humility, empathy, trust, and respect—remain foundational, the “How do we do this?” questions evolve with changes in the workplace, transformational technology, and the fresh expectations of each new generation. I’ve been asked many questions about contemporary business etiquette, some prompted by the pandemic and others by efforts to ensure more inclusive workplaces. Here are a few of the most common:
Given the need for social distancing, which new greeting is replacing the handshake?
This is a question that reflects a new awkwardness in social gatherings and business meetings. Tradition says that the handshake originated centuries ago; you extended your hand in a gesture of peace and to show that you were not concealing a weapon. But many health professionals have been discouraging handshakes as a strategy to limit the spread of germs; some organizations have even posted signs to prevent the practice.
No universal substitute has been identified, creating some uncomfortable moments when an introduction or greeting occurs. Fist bumps and elbow bumps are two common substitutes, although these can seem inappropriate in a professional setting when you are newly introduced to someone. Many cultures use a respectful bow or nod of the head.
My suggestion is to prepare ahead of time by identifying a substitute that feels natural and comfortable to you and practice it often. The most important aspect of this new form of greeting is to ensure that you stop and fully acknowledge the person you are greeting. How you greet them is less important than that they feel acknowledged and respected by your greeting.
Over time, and post-COVID, we will likely settle into a stage where a variety of greetings are acceptable. Take the lead from the senior person in the room—even ask what they prefer.
Regardless of physical greeting, it is important in just about every culture to look the person in the eye. I learned this in a rather memorable way. I was with Lech Walesa, then the president of Poland. We were on a ferry boat circling the Statue of Liberty and headed for New York’s Ellis Island.
Since he was sitting, I kneeled to brief him on what was going to happen when we got to Ellis Island. While that was the right action, I made the mistake of looking at the interpreter instead of looking at President Walesa while I was talking.
The president tapped me on the shoulder and with his two fingers did what we might call the “I see you” gesture. He pointed towards my eyes, then back to his eyes, all while saying in Polish, with a smile, “You can look at me while you’re briefing me. Our friend here is interpreting your words, but you are talking to me.”
I thought that was such a gracious and gentle but poignant lesson that applies in so many arenas. Paying proper attention to whom you are speaking or greeting means looking them in the eyes. Show people you value them and respect them by connecting eye to eye. He was a great teacher for that concept; a kind and gentle man but a giant in so many ways.
Which form of greeting is appropriate in a professional email?
Once upon a time, business correspondence began with a formal “Dear sir” or “Dear madam.” Today’s business etiquette requires a very different form of greeting, one that is more personal and inclusive. You’ll want to adopt a more formal tone with a client than a close colleague of course, but it is becoming far more common to use a simple “Hello” or “Dear” with the individual’s first name.
How can I demonstrate my respect for colleagues that I have only “met” virtually?
This is an intriguing question, one that reflects remote work and the advent of digital transformation, where colleagues may be in different cities, time zones, even continents. Most organizations have specific best practices to ensure effective collaboration, but civility creates a unique opportunity to build stronger teams. My recommendation is simple: be responsive. Answer questions quickly. Respond to emails right away. Be present and on time for scheduled Zoom meetings. Schedule those meetings at times that work for all time zones represented.
As a new hire working remotely, how can I determine what’s appropriate?
I love this question! We can learn a lot by being observant, but a Zoom camera only reveals so much. I recommend asking—your supervisor, your HR manager, your team leader. Each organization has a unique understanding of appropriate dress, preferred forms of communication, how to engage with clients, etc. Sometimes a simple and direct question is the best etiquette for communicating courtesy.
The secret at the heart of all of these strategies is to remember that the goal of communication is to connect with others and build relationships. I have been listening to the audiobook Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups by renowned angel investor Jason Calacanis. He is very direct, which is a civil way of saying that he can also be read at first as a bit brash. We seem to forgive brash in the uber-successful. But as I listened further, I noticed his voice softening. His methodology for finding the right investments for his angel funding is hyper-human-centered, and this translates into his communication style. He has been on both sides of the deal table and, as such, he knows it is important to build and maintain relationships whether you are a buyer or seller.
For Jason Calacanis, for Lech Walesa, for anyone seeking etiquette for civil communication, there is a consistent strategy that works: clearly showing respect is the best way to ensure courteous communication.