While recently lunching with lawyers, I noticed that some mobile devices were out on the table. It prompted me to raise an etiquette question: Is it bad manners to keep your cellphone out during lunch or completely acceptable?
Today's workplace etiquette is tricky, and most of us still are trying to figure out the rules. Between relaxed dress codes, use of technology, and blurred boundaries, navigating the crucial distinctions between professional and social courtesies has become complicated.
Once I put the question out there, each of the lawyers chimed in with differing views. Some cited possible family emergencies as a reason to keep the phone in sight; others cited clients' expectations of quick response. Overall, the consensus was that putting your cell on the table and checking it during the meal is acceptable when lunching with colleagues or friends, not with clients or potential customers.
"Workplace etiquette does change and adjust," said nationally syndicated etiquette columnist Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners. Martin has partnered with her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, to help us navigate the new workplace etiquette pitfalls in her new book, Miss Manners Minds Your Business.
"Today, some of the etiquette rules are different. Others just are disobeyed more flagrantly," she explained to me.
Because the rules change over time, many of us don't intend to offend. Yet there are high costs, even with seemingly inconsequential actions: Our etiquette breaches create bad impressions with clients, ruin job prospects or set back our careers.
Young workers often step into a minefield on the job after years of parents and teachers encouraging them to "be themselves," Martin explained. At work, they might interpret that to mean posting their emotions on social networks, neglecting to wash the coffeepot, or writing an email in text speak. "When entering the business world, you need to learn to be someone else. It is called having a professional identity," she said.
For all workers, staying professional even as the workplace becomes more casual requires reading cues. You don't want to address the boss by his first name if the rest of the staff calls him Mr. Smith.
Marc Cenedella, CEO and founder of TheLadders.com, an online marketplace for $100,000-plus jobs, warns that in every office — even those with a collegial culture — there exists an invisible line between professional and unprofessional behavior. A survey by TheLadders.com found managers often draw the line at cussing at work, wearing revealing clothing and having repeated loud personal conversations. A Ladders survey deemed a foul mouth is the most punishable of all workplace faux pas, finding that 36 percent of U.S. bosses have issued a formal warning and 6 percent have fired an employee for swearing.
Most workers will confirm that the big slips that create most resentment arise from our being more distracted than ever by technology. Leslie Harris said she was aghast when her physician took a call on his cellphone while examining her. "I could hear the conversation and I'm pretty sure he was speaking to a friend," said Harris, a marketing executive. She since has found another physician.
Of course, the smartphone addict typically doesn't think he or she is being rude by staring at a screen or zipping off an email during a team meeting or one-on-one interaction, and may actually consider himself being responsive to customers' needs in real time.
Martin said that's no excuse: "Not paying attention to human beings who are there to be with you is rude." Sometimes, prefacing a meeting by announcing you are expecting an urgent call helps buffer the interpretation of bad manners. Regardless, she said, "You are sending the message that the person or people you are with are not worth your attention."
In a survey conducted earlier this year, 64 percent of 1,718 chief information officers said higher use of mobile gadgets has led to more breaches in workplace etiquette over the past three years. That's up from 51 percent who said the same thing in a survey conducted three years ago by the Robert Half Finance & Accounting staffing firm.
In a business setting, if you can't give others your full attention, don't go to the meeting or shut your door, Martin said. Greenberg Traurig business litigator Michele Stocker recently found a client upset when she didn't answer repeated calls on her cell in a two-hour span. Stocker explained that it would be bad manners to not give the client she was with her full attention during a legal proceeding. "When I (asked), 'How would you like it if I took a call during a meeting with you?' they admitted they would be offended and said that I made a fair point."
Most of us strive to be responsive, but we are entitled to a peaceful private life. That may mean delaying an email response or returning a call. Answering in up to 24 hours is acceptable, etiquette experts say.
Maryline Coirin, a Miami business etiquette consultant, said most of the questions she gets involve dining. Even today, the old business luncheon still is an expected part of a successful professional life — and rife with land mines. "When you sit down at the dining table, everything you do is being judged," she said.
If you salt your food before you taste it, you could be viewed as impulsive. If you hold your wine glass by the stem, you would be considered cultured, Coirin explained. In agreement with Martin, Coirin said one of the most important dining etiquette rules is to keep your phone in your pocket or purse, even if you are just peeking at the time. "During a meal, it has no business being out or on the table," she asserted.
When confronting a colleague about an etiquette blunder, ask him or her to view the actions from other people's perspective, experts suggest.
"Were you aware that your loud personal conversations are distracting your co-workers?" You might even suggest other ways of handling a situation.
Experts say most workers don't intentionally want to be rude to their co-workers and office hierarchies typically reward those who use common courtesy. Martin said she sees a positive in the evolution of etiquette: "Tolerance for bad behavior has disappeared."