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Etiquette for Sophisticates

By Suzanne Pollak

Etiquette is essential because it saves people from offending other members of society. The word might seem outdated, but when could thoughtful behavior ever not be in style? The mark of a sophisticated person is intuitively knowing how to avoid making people uncomfortable, intentionally or not. A sophisticated individual takes responsibility for his or her actions and words. Anyone past the eighth grade (or even before it) needs to know the basic rules that glue society together, especially today! Even if you’ve already learned most of this, every once in a while, we all need a reminder.

Let’s Start with Common Sense:

Learn to be an active governor of your actions and cognizant of how you conduct yourself.

Pay attention. Be a good listener! When a friend talks about what’s going on in her/his life, it’s worthy of listening actively and becoming a participant. Instead of one-upmanship—which means you listen initially and then think this happened in your own life way more dramatically—just be quiet and listen. Do not respond with, “You think that’s bad? You have no idea what I’m going through!” This is known as the ugly art of turning yourself into the center of the conversation. That is always bad form, and people notice. It’s self-centered and self-absorbed.

Ask questions. It’s simple, basic manners! Asking questions is how you charm people. Being curious makes others feel important and makes you a more interesting person without being self-absorbed. Being curious gets information. You can often find out people’s secrets in five minutes by playing dumb and smiling. Get the details. Hone in on what makes an individual tick. We call curiosity “emotional intelligence.” You will get far in life by being charming and deeply curious—you can literally charm people’s pants off. (Romantics beware!)

Teach your teenagers. Tell them to engage with their friends’ parents. Try “Hello, how are you?” instead of sneaking upstairs when visiting friends and pretending the parents don’t exist. But parents need help, too! Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits research shows that in many instances, adults don’t take the time to ask their child’s friends questions, like, “What interests you?” Don’t treat your children’s friends like they are little kids; give them an opening and start a conversation.

Don’t say what you don’t mean. That’s just plain rude. Don’t make promises you cannot keep, lead another on, or fail to follow up on plans. In other words, don’t be a jerk. Not only can it leave others confused, but also—come on! If you are an adult, act like one. Mean what you say. Others notice lousy behavior and even talk about it behind closed doors. Life can be difficult enough as it is, so why add to another’s troubles with your selfishness?

Treat people like you want to be treated. This applies to social situations and in the workplace. There is never an excuse for disrespectful, condescending, or demeaning behavior toward another. Rude behavior marks you as a person with problems; low self-esteem, ego out of control, arrogance. People might not be assertive in return, but that usually means they are taking the high ground and acting professionally.

No whining! “I am so busy,” “I am in the weeds,” “You can’t believe what I am up against.” Who cares? Tally how many times you have heard these kinds of excuses. We are all busy—some people way more than others. These statements lead nowhere. They cannot ignite an exciting conversation and do not improve a relationship.

Smile. Even gorillas do it. People read facial expressions. They also hear smiles; smiling changes the tone of your voice. Try it! Record yourself saying something, then record the same sentence while you smile. The difference might astonish you.

Make eye contact. Even if you are not entirely sure of your position, remind yourself that everyone wasn’t always overly competent. They practiced, and they learned. Stay calm and collected and remind yourself of your worth, then you can think of others around you. Making eye contact can ignite a meaningful relationship immediately. Eyes communicate.

Take care of yourself. Self-care might be last on this list, but it’s certainly not least! Without it, you can’t take care of anyone else. Say, “I am sorry, I can’t go out; I need to be on my own for an evening.” Burnout is common. Avoid it by creating pockets of space to allow yourself to recharge.

Next, a Few Cell Phone Rules:

Today, the worst etiquette involves the cellular phone. People seem to be ungovernable when it comes to their phones! Be aware of how the phone takes up just as much space as a person. Effectively, you are inviting everyone you could possibly contact to the table.

In business, have you ever met someone for lunch and the first thing out of their mouth was, “I am expecting a call,” as they put their phone on the table face-up? This is a no-no! If you absolutely must do it, preface answering a call with, “I am sorry, I hate to do this. This will be very quick.” Having the phone on the table means you are not fully present. No one is good at listening to two things at once. Even if you can, it’s rude! Give your in-person company your full attention. (P.S.—Don’t think we don’t know when you’re reading your Apple Watch! When you get a message and look at the watch, we know you are not looking at the time. It’s very awkward for the other person, but they cannot say anything.)

When it comes to family, high school students and young adults have reported to the Academy that they won’t talk to their parents until they put their phones away. Kids will walk out of the room until said parent puts down their cell, lest they have to repeat things. Perhaps your children are more conscious of core manners than you might realize. As technology develops, kids are surprised to discover their parents are rude. It’s impolite to have a phone at the dinner table, especially when it pings with every new notification. FYI to parents without a clue: you can turn off these alerts, app by app, so everything isn’t buzzing or beeping constantly. Notice that younger folks only turn on the ones they need to know. Keep the phone on silent, with no vibration either. Better yet, shut it down when you have family time. The dinging agitates people (and even pets) and can make them feel anxious. Is this what you want to do to those around you?

Just as our grandparents and great-grandparents told us through the years: treat others as you want to be treated.

For their part, parents have shared their rules of “no phone in the car,” because that’s when a lot of the best conversations takes place. With kids and their friends all using their cells, the parent might feel like an Uber driver. (Of course, the driver should never be using a phone.)

Finally, what are the criteria among friends? When is it okay to check something on your phone? While watching a show together? Yes, then it’s okay to check your phone. You don’t need your friend’s undivided attention for that interaction. But if you are out to dinner, it is not okay. Whenever you are one on one or at a party, do not check your phone.

Different places might require different thinking. In New York City, people rely on their phones to check trains or pull up a map to get the fastest route to their destination. Yet we have noticed that people are slowly becoming more mindful of their technology usage and consumption. Do not check the phone because you are bored, as if it were such an awful thing to be! The Academy feels that no one is bored anymore, and that is bad news because it cuts out daydreaming.

Finally, the Only Rule That Really Matters:

Don’t get hung up on the rules! All of the above points can be tailored and applied in any circumstance, with any group of people. Wherever you are in the world, if you are unsure of what to do, remember that you can never go wrong when behaving toward someone in the way you would like to be regarded. That might be the Golden Rule, but it is also the very definition of etiquette and the basis of sophistication. Just as our grandparents and great-grandparents told us through the years: treat others as you want to be treated.

— V —

Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine.

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