by Barbara Pachter | Comments (17)
I've coached executives around the world on the finer and grosser points of protocol — from who holds open the door for whom to how not to tell a joke. With clients ranging from Merck to Microsoft, I've seen every type of etiquette blunder. The common thread: lack of self-awareness. You probably don't mean to be rude — but you don't know any better.
Consider this one, the vice president of the bank I was consulting for who arrived early for a meeting. Some junior people were already there. He put his briefcase on the table, opened it up, took out a stick of deodorant, unbuttoned his shirt, and put it on. Nobody said anything they were so stunned. And the VP seemed oblivious. But the cost to this guy will be high. If the people around him think he might at any moment whip out his deodorant, figuratively speaking, he's never going to have the full consent of his followers.
Most bad manners arise because the perpetrator isn't paying attention. Drinking too much at business events is surprisingly common. Everyone knows it's a bad idea, but people do it anyway. Then there's the whole class of behaviors that fall somewhere between bad manners and bad mannerisms. I once coached a director whose colleagues thought she was condescending. Turns out, part of the reason people saw her that way was because of how she wore her reading glasses. She kept them on the tip of her nose and peered over them. It made her look skeptical and disdainful. She had no idea. And how about people who mangle paper clips when they talk? If you're meeting with a visitor from another company and you're dismembering paper clips, you probably don't know you're doing it, and you're probably sending a message you don't want to send.
I've given more than 1,600 seminars to over 100,000 people, and no one in any of my classes has ever admitted to behaving badly. It's always the other guy. It's the same psychology that makes everyone think they're better-than-average drivers. Many people are worse than average, by definition. But they'd never admit it. So the starting point is to acknowledge that, chances are, you're making etiquette mistakes that you'd want to correct if only you knew about them. How do you find out? Easy. Get feedback. In general, the higher up you are, the less you can count on people to tell you what you're doing wrong. Getting honest feedback is always tough. Frankly, most high-level executives have major egos. They don't think they need this sort of feedback, and they don't want it. But they do need it. The best thing to do is get a coach. Failing that, create an environment that encourages feedback of all types, and get videoed. I can tell a client her expression looks disdainful until I'm blue in the face. But when she sees it on video, it really hits home.
Getting etiquette right is doubly important, and doubly hard, in international business. The old adage "When in Rome..." still applies. But unless people are really attuned to and practice the etiquette of their own culture, they're probably not going to do a good job modifying their behaviors for another culture. I heard about an American executive traveling in Japan who took a Japanese colleague's business card and then absentmindedly picked his teeth with it. That's a big mistake even in the United States, but you can imagine the Japanese executive's reaction. It's not enough to read a book and take a one-day course on Japanese business etiquette before you go. You've got to nail your own culture's etiquette first. Then you step out of your culture, look back at it, and compare it with the other culture. Bear in mind also that humor doesn't travel well across cultures. It can bomb badly. Here's a mistake I made. I was in Kuwait, and I was invited to my agent's home for dinner. I walked in, and on the dining room table there was food laid out from one end to the other. They must have been cooking for a week. And I said, "Do you think there's enough food?" Oops. My agent thought I was serious. Fortunately, we were able to talk about it later and have a good laugh. The point is, unless you know exactly what you're doing, don't try to make a joke.
So, to return to the question of how you tell your boss his fly is down (or that she has lipstick on her teeth): The mistake to avoid is to not say anything. The cost of not telling could be high if it appears that you knew and kept quiet. It's simple. Just give him the facts, quietly if possible. "Bob, your fly is down." If you're embarrassed, get someone else to do it. Everybody wins: The boss is saved from embarrassment, and you'll go up a notch in his estimation for your nerve and for limiting his exposure.