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Chapter 8

Unfamiliar Settings: Handling Social Situations

Work is humanity's most natural form of relaxation.

- Dagobert Runes

Sometimes play is work - as when your organization expects you to "show the flag" at social gatherings. But mastering the principles for harmonious interaction at parties and other off-site gatherings can be a daunting challenge.

How can we be sure that the people we encounter during these "nonwork work" events showcase us at our very best? It may take a little practice, because our everyday instincts for proper behavior are usually divided into "business" and "social" spheres. When the spheres intersect, we may feel disoriented and have trouble responding quickly and effectively to challenges.

That's where this chapter comes in. It offers invaluable advice in areas that may not yet be "second nature" to you when you face work-related etiquette questions in social settings. By reviewing the ideas that follow, you'll help to make sure that you and your organization come across as polished and professional.

Tip #80

Set up a floor plan for social gatherings.

When entertaining guests at a business reception, make sure you have a crowd-control floor plan.

Position the "hosts" or key people within your organization in certain areas of the room so that guests can be waltzed from group to group in a smooth fashion. The most important person should be furthest away from the door. This will prevent people who want to speak with this person from crowding the entrance.

Tip #81

If you're planning a typar, know when it stops.

When planning a business reception, be sure to limit it to two or three hours. This time frame keeps people from feeling worn out (especially when the reception takes place at the end of a business day). It also limits the amount of time that alcohol is served.

Tip #82

At receptions, silently repeat the mantra who needs cliques?

When you are involved in business receptions, avoid looking like you are part of your company or departmental "in-crowd." In other words, take the initiative - and show the organizational "flag" - by approaching people you don't know and taking the time and effort to become acquainted with them. Be sure that you ask more questions of others than you give information about yourself. If you notice that your employees or subordinates tend to cluster together in cliques rather than mixing with others, tactfully bring this to their attention. Clarify the reasons they are going to a certain business function, especially if it is for the purpose of networking. Explain what your expectations are and tell them that you will be meeting with them after the function for a "debriefing" session. Employees should be encouraged to sit next to people they don't know and to ask questions of others rather than talk about themselves, and to take responsibility for conversations with people on either side of them and to keep others involved in the basic flow of talk.

Tip #83

Make a point of handing out business

It doesn't always take a formal meeting to bring business colleagues and customers together. Sometimes informal meetings and the chance to network can take place in the form of receptions, conferences, and organizational lunches. Take full advantage of such occasions. If a person appears interested in the service or product you represent, offer the person your business card. You just may get one in return!

Tip #84

Tactfully redirect "tech talk" at parties and receptions.

Perhaps you've had this experience: You hook up with a technical expert - someone who knows a certain computer system, Web browser, or transmission repair procedure inside and out. At a social gathering, this person goes off on a series of tangents that makes everyone else's eyes glaze over.

Try to keep the conversation accessible to everyone by smiling and saying, "That's a conversation in and of itself!" or "We certainly couldn't do justice to that subject tonight." Such "redirects" acknowledge your conversational partner's expertise and allow you to keep the discussion accessible to everyone.

Tip #85

Leave "shop talk" at work during nonwork-related gatherings.

Have you ever noticed that newcomers to a company sometimes seem to be the ones who have the hardest time letting go of work issues during after-hours gatherings? Many new hires are recruited from out-of-town. The challenges of their jobs, when combined with the lack of a social network in a new city, can make establishing a personal sense of balance difficult for these folks. Their professional lives may consume most of their waking hours, and often the little time left at the end of the day is devoted to errands or other logistical matters. So they simply don't have much time to develop a group of friends outside of their work environment. The social and work worlds often fuse into one. If this weren't a recipe for burnout, there might not be a problem. But all too often, it is.

Help these folks out by setting an example of balanced living. Be true to yourself and your organization, which, after all, needs competent, creative workers, rather than overstressed automatons. Make a commitment: During evenings and weekends, your colleagues and you should find a way to talk about other topics - a televised golf tournament, a good new restaurant, a play you'd like to see.

Besides giving work talk a break, you will confirm to others that there really is life after work.

Tip #86

When eating out, don't "make like a cake."

At a business meal, when you've finished eating and the server asks whether you'd like your plate cleared, the appropriate response is a smile and a silent nod.

The inappropriate approach (whether or not a server is nearby) is to announce your status to the world at large by saying, "I'm done!" - making yourself sound like a cake that needs to be removed from an oven.

Tip #87

Synchronize your business meals.

Many businesspeople forget that the reason for breaking bread together is usually to interact with one another. Chowing down comes second! That means a "group approach" should prevail as the meal progresses.

How many times have you taken part in a business lunch or dinner and seen one person order an appetizer or dessert, without consulting the others at the table about what - or whether - they'd like to order? If you find that you're the only person at the table interested in a "peripheral" course, skip it! This is particularly important where appetizers are concerned. It's a major gaffe to make others wait for their courses to be served because you alone have chosen to explore the double-glazed chicken wings.

If you're the host or hostess, order peripheral menu items only if one or more of your guests does so. If you're a guest, order these courses only if others appear interested in doing so. The short rule is to listen and then order or don't order, based on what the others at the table are doing and/or what your host recommends.

Tip #88

Develop pasta consciousness.

If you are in a restaurant where the chef specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, don't be surprised if you are not offered a spoon for securing those 12-inch strands of linguini on the fork. As a result of the French influence of cooking with white sauces, northern Italians typically twirl without using a spoon. However, if the chef specializes in Southern Italian cuisine or pastas with red sauces, such as linguini with marinara sauce, you may be offered a spoon. This is due to the Spanish influence, which encourages a more casual style of eating. This is just one of the countless areas of possible "culture clash" with overseas contacts. See the appendix for more advice on international etiquette.

Tip #89

Handle the "grace period" gracefully.

When hosting a dinner for clients in your home, you may request that they join you in your family's traditional words of thanks and prayer, although you should avoid making an issue of it. However, if you are hosting a meal in a restaurant or are a guest of someone else, avoid saying grace aloud. Simply say it to yourself quietly.

Tip #90

Follow your diet - quietly.

If you are on a special diet yet do not want to subject your client to explanations at the table, it is perfectly fine to call the restaurant ahead of time and request that the entrees be explained to you. Ask about what would be appropriate for your needs, based on the type of diet you are following.

Tip #91

Save those notes on utensil use for later.

If you notice that a colleague or subordinate is using the wrong utensil at a business meal, the best way to let him or her know this is by doing it right yourself. Your actions may raise the level of awareness of the person committing the faux pas. If this doesn't work, then take a moment the next day to talk to your co-worker about it. Be sure to use the "I" form instead of "you": "I learned that the appropriate utensil to use for the appetizer is the two-pronged fork to the right of the spoon," rather than "You used the wrong fork the other night and looked like a fool." By speaking in the first person singular, you will come across as providing constructive criticism, rather than being perceived as an attacker.

Tip #92

Give overseas visitors the VIP treatment.

When entertaining contacts from overseas or across the border, be sure to refer to them as "international" rather than "foreign." Frequently, the term "foreign" implies something undesirable, alien, out of place, or not belonging. When you are hosting a specific group from a particular country, you should, of course, incorporate it into your introduction ("our Chinese customers" or "our Greek clients").

It may seem like a small matter, especially when you consider that many of your visitors will be too polite to correct you, yet using insensitive terminology may offend your visitors and can cost you business.

Tip #93

Know how to get a business meal off to the right start.

You're hosting a business meal... and you've got questions.

How do you let the server know that you are in charge? Where do you seat the most senior guest? When should business be discussed?

Seasoned hosts know that phrases like, "My guests and I would like to know about your specials" or I'd like my guests to order first" are sure cues to servers that the bill is to be given to them at the end of the meal.

These pros also recognize that servers take orders from the first person to the host's right... and therefore make a point of sitting to the immediate left of the most senior guest.

Finally, they know that a business meal is for eating first... and then for discussing the matter at hand. For that reason, business should either be discussed before the food arrives or near the end of the meal. (Exception: If your senior guest has a different way of running the business meal, by all means follow his or her lead.)

Tip #94

Think twice before jettisoning a conversational partner.

Recently, we heard this from an associate:

"I was at a reception last night; I approached someone standing alone and soon learned that I had absolutely nothing in common with him. How do you escape from a situation like that?"

The next time you find yourself in that situation, change your mindset. Recognize that everyone is interesting...if you are sincerely interested. The secret is knowing how to get the conversation "engine" revved up properly!

Ask open-ended questions (that is, questions that focus on "who," "what," "when," "where," and "how") rather than closed-ended ones (questions that can be answered with the words "Yes" or "No").

Look at the difference:

"So, you're in marketing. Did you study marketing in school?"

"So, you're in marketing. What did you study in school to prepare for a career like that?"

The first question practically paints the person into a corner. The second allows him or her to open up... and, once the other person has responded, offers you a chance to share something about your own education and establish points of commonality.

You may just be surprised at how much you have in common with this person... once you ask the right questions.

Key point summary

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