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Vol. LXI, No. 9
May 1, 2009

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Courtesy, a Cornerstone of Confidence
Etiquette Can Build, Keep Successful Relationships

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So you’re at a gathering that includes several coworkers, your boss and a few VIPs the boss wants to impress. Across the room you notice one of the VIPs sneezing into his hand. The next thing you know, your boss—oblivious of the gesundheit moment—leads Dr. Sneezy over to meet you. You know what’s next. You’re expected to shake hands, greet the doc, give a good first impression of yourself and your organization. But, hello? Dr. Sneezy has not washed that hand. Which do you risk, career or cold?

Enter Anna Post, author of several etiquette guides and great-great granddaughter of that great guru of social graces, Emily Post. Not only can Anna Post help you get past the ick factor in the scenario above, but also she can give you tips for navigating other uh, sticky job-jeopardizing situations that arise. At the invitation of NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education, she shared advice for “Building Successful Relationships” in Lipsett Amphitheater on Mar. 25.


  Anna Post  
  Anna Post  

Is Etiquette Essential?

If some attendees came to the lecture skeptical about the relevance of etiquette these days, most seemed convinced of its need after hearing some of the true stories used to illustrate the workshop. A spokesperson for the family business where she, her mom, dad, sister and a few other relatives all work, Post cited an AP/Ipsos poll that found 69 percent of respondents think Americans are ruder today than 20 or 30 years ago. Whether you agree could perhaps reveal your age. Rudeness, she explained, is generational and expectations as well as “some of the social norms change over time.”

Consider cell phone and BlackBerry use around you. Who hasn’t involuntarily overheard one end of a conversation by someone loud-talking into some kind of micro receiver? If your BlackBerry buzzes and whirrs during a meeting, what’s the protocol for answering? Should you text during Grand Rounds?

“Not only will this be good advice here,” Post pointed out to the audience made up largely of postdocs and fellows, “but also it will serve you well as many of you move out into the professional world that may have a little bit of a different culture.”

Comfort, Confidence Breed Success

In an informal poll of the audience, Post found many different terms people associate with etiquette, from “being proper” to “grandma.” As the holder of a storied pedigree in the field, she admits she’s probably heard just about all of the perceptions—good and bad—of manners. Since 1922, when Anna’s foremother wrote the now-classic text on etiquette, the Emily Post Institute has addressed all kinds of public behavior—from what to do at weddings and funerals to how to act in classrooms and boardrooms. Anna and other writers at the institute continue to update the book for every generation.

She said today’s challenges in common courtesy are no less fascinating than those of yesteryear. Far more than professional or even personal skills to be cultivated, she stressed, the practice of etiquette should be second nature.
Post greets an attendee with a standard handshake.
Post greets an attendee with a standard handshake. For those unsure of how firm to grip, she advises: “Use about the same amount of pressure you’d use for the refrigerator door handle.”

“It’s not so much about rules,” Post said of her great-great grandmother’s philosophy, “but more about people behaving in ways that put other people at ease.” That was one of her biggest concerns. “My overarching goal is building successful relationships, whether it’s in business or in your personal life. Etiquette doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When you’re in a room by yourself, there’s not much concern whether you’re rude or polite. It takes two people for this conversation to happen, how we react to each other and influence each other and the decisions we choose to make.”

According to the Post model, “etiquette equals manners plus principles.” The difference between the latter two is that manners change with the times and vary among cultures. Principles, however, are timeless and cross cultural boundaries.

Knowing how to act and what to expect in any situation is a powerful confidence builder, Post contended. Three factors you can control are key for boosting your poise: actions, appearance, words.

Actions to Prevent Distractions

Common courtesy may seem less common these days, but it’s no less useful, Post said. Same goes for the practical behavior most people learned in early childhood. Much of the time, good etiquette simply requires that you think less about yourself and more about the other people you encounter.

“Think before acting sounds very kindergarten, doesn’t it?” she noted. “But thinking before acting prevents us from winding up in a situation…where the first thing we have to say is ‘I’m sorry.’”

That’s not to suggest having manners is all altruistic, Post said. The way you behave affects the way you are perceived, which in turn affects your bottom line. People judge you (and by extension, your work and the organization you represent) on gestures, mannerisms and courtesies all the time. Were you late getting to a meeting? Were you paying attention to the presentation or BlackBerrying? Were you too familiar or candid in an email? Errors of etiquette distract everyone involved from your real purpose.

“What happens when we’re not making those mistakes?” Post asked. “We get right to the business that we’ve come to do—the good exchange of information. We can be as impressive as possible. That’s where our focus can go. That’s when we do our best work.”

As for the opening scenario involving Dr. Sneezy? Post says this is one of those times when you have to think beyond yourself. The best thing to do, she advised, is “take one for the team.” Shake hands. Make the good impression. You can always wash your hands later.

Post’s workshop at NIH is archived at You can also catch her blog, What Would Emily Do, at NIHRecord Icon

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