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By Kathy Van Mullekom

RISMEDIA, Sept. 20, 2008-(MCT)-Some say good manners and proper etiquette are out of style-banished to the attic with starched white blouses and business suits. Not so, according to etiquette consultants Lila Putney and Libby Marth of The Protocol School of Virginia in Richmond, Va.

“Many individuals and companies are realizing the importance of mastering both business and social etiquette skills,” says Libby. “They are paying more attention to how they present themselves and how they interact with others. Dining skills are also important as more companies include a dining experience as part of the interview process.

“Also, in the last decade, there has been a need to establish etiquette rules as they relate to the use of new technology, such as cell phones and the Internet. Etiquette for more casual work environments has been challenging to many individuals and the corporate world.”

If you’ve ever caught yourself wondering what to do, Putney and Marth give tips for the 10 most common social situations that make people feel uncomfortable and how to deal with them.

1. What shall I wear? Even though casual attire is favored today in many settings, it’s still important to dress professionally-everyone from staff to boss-in the workplace. It’s better to be overdressed than undressed; avoid clothing that’s too revealing or flamboyant. Dress appropriately outside the workplace, too. Sweats and exercise clothing belong in the gym; an exposed midriff looks cute on a 5-year-old but not on adults.

2. Is that my phone ringing? Cell phone abuse is common these days rings or music everywhere we go, people talking loudly in offices, stores, banks and even restaurants. Public cell phone use intrudes on your personal space. Stop and think before you reprimand the user; in public places such as a restaurant or theatre, alert management and let them deal with the abuser.

3. Who are you? We have all been in awkward situations where we don’t know a person in a group. At business and social events, introduce yourself and other people to the group; include something about yourself or the other person as a conversation starter. It makes everyone feel comfortable and connected and helps you meet new people.

4. What do I say now? In today’s work and social arenas, it’s important to know how to make small talk. Regularly read the newspaper, magazines and watch news shows so you have topics to talk about. Stay away from controversial topics such as politics and religion.

5. Am I in charge? When you head a committee or project–or volunteer as a room parent for your child’s class–plan ahead so you stay organized and focused. Get projects and reports done a day or two in advance of your deadline; this extra time lets you deal with last-minute issues.

Also, be sure the clothes you want to wear are clean and available (not at the cleaners), get gas in your car and set an extra alarm to be sure you are up in time on your important day.

6. Whoops! I forgot to write a thank you note. It is never too late to thank someone. Even if a couple of weeks or even a month has lapsed, write a note expressing how much you have been thinking about the nice gesture or using the lovely gift. E-mail thank-you messages are appropriate only when followed by a hand-written note. A trick is to address and stamp an envelope before you go to an event and have it sitting on your desk so that when you return, it’s easy to jot down a nice message.

7. Which bread plate is mine? It can be overwhelming to sit down to a formal dinner and have an array of plates, utensils and glassware before you and no idea which ones you should use. Remember, your napkin and bread plate are on your left and your beverages are on your right. If you are concerned about your utensils, work from the outside to the inside in the silverware placement. When in doubt, watch others.

8. “Honey, this business function is your dinner tonight.” At business affairs, avoid heading straight for food or beverage stations. Use the event to make new friends, new associates and new contacts. Keep your right hand free for a handshake. Snack before a function so you are not ravenous. Eat and drink near a table so you can put your beverage down and still have a hand free. Take small bites, avoid dipping sauces and crunchy, messy and other difficult-to-eat foods.

9. She has spinach between her teeth-what do I do? Most people want to immediately know they have food between their teeth, toilet paper stuck to their shoe, a label showing or a spill on their shirt instead of realizing two hours later that they have been walking around that way. It’s easy to discreetly motion with your finger or quietly tell the person so they can go directly to the restroom and fix their problem.

10. Actions speak louder than words! The Golden Rule still applies for good etiquette in all situations–for all genders: Treat others as you would have them treat you. Both women and men should be comfortable helping others with their coats, chairs, doors and the elevator. Even though “gentlemanly acts of kindness” should be promoted in a social setting, the business arena is gender neutral. Good posture, a pleasant facial expression and appropriate eye contact will help to make a good first impression and contribute to a positive interaction with others.

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© 2008, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.