Last week I taught a class on Business Etiquette. My class consisted of people ranging in ages from the mid 20’s to the early 50’s. I noticed a definite gap in how people identified “correct” behavior. The younger people seemed more relaxed with the rules.

Webster’s defines etiquette as “behaviors required by good breeding or prescribed by authority.” When I showed that definition to the class, they burst out laughing. What is good breeding? Did our parents prepare us for today’s workplace? Wikipedia defines etiquette as a code that influences the expectations and behavior of social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class or group. Now, that’s clear, wouldn’t you say?

One aspect of etiquette we all agree on is that etiquette consists of norms. Norms are unspoken codes of behavior. When someone walks into a classroom, they know without being told, to sit in an empty chair. What would happen if someone decided to sit on the floor? That person would violate a norm and violate the etiquette for that classroom. In all likelihood, the group would shun that person. Norms help people relate to one another. If we had to explain everything we did to each other each moment, we’d go crazy. Hence, most of our norms are unspoken. We do these things without thinking. For that reason, we often get into trouble in other countries where norms vary. (Squeezing fruit is a particular “no-no” in parts of Europe.)

In business many “unspoken” behaviors exist and often confuse us. One norm that drives me nuts relates to email etiquette. We somehow believe (because no one told us!) we must answer all emails. When someone emails us, it’s our duty to respond even if the response is a single word. One reason the social network, Twitter, grew with such rapid popularity is you do not have to answer “Tweets.” How wonderful! Email etiquette has changed over time (even though few people know it because the changes are again, unspoken). For example, email grew as an informal means of communication. It began as an extension to the spoken word. In the beginning, therefore, we did not need to worry about spelling or grammar. We could write (or type) as we wished. I’m sure this norm evolved because many early email users did not know how to type. Nonetheless, today’s email etiquette frowns on misspellings or grammatical errors. Email has become as formal a written communication as the business letter (well, not quite, but almost!).

As we come face to face with new ways to communicate, we encounter new norms, which change daily. Along with the norm changes come etiquette changes.
One bone of contention in my class last week was whether or not it’s okay to slather yourself with anti-bacterial cleanser while sitting at the table with others. Young people in my class justified the need to do so because of the increase in disease and hearty bacteria. They contended it is not only okay to slather yourself, it is essential, and you should share your anti-bacterial with others at the table. Proper etiquette, however, denies this proposition. It is impolite to slather yourself with anything at the table in the presence of others, whether it’s anti-bacterial, lipstick, chap-stick, or hand cream. You can accomplish all these slathering activities in the privacy of the restroom.

Has etiquette, therefore, become old-fashioned? And if it has how are we to figure out what in the world to do?

Author's Bio: 

Joan Curtis is the CEO for Total Communications Coach. She has done leadership training and consulting for over 20 years. Her new book, Managing Sticky Situations at Work http://www.managingstickysituationsatwork, came out in June 2009. In it she creates a new model of communication called the Say It Just Right Model. Check out her website at