Mind Your Manners

Manners or etiquette is a defined or customary way of behaving, which demonstrates both self-respect and respect for others in individual and group social interactions. It could also be called using good manners. Every culture and country has its own unique expectations for proper etiquette. In this global marketplace, whether you are at home or in another country, take the time to find out how to interact respectfully, tactfully and appropriately with all of your professional colleagues. For a detailed overview of international etiquette by country, review the etiquette chapters in the Going Global country guides (Handshake> Resource Library)

Etiquette practices vary across the United States, but there are some areas of etiquette that remain relatively constant and are worth knowing well, especially if you want to impress!


Second only to attire, how you introduce yourself and others is critical to making a great first impression.

When introducing yourself, be sure to:

  • Face the person and make eye contact
  • Greet the person by telling him/her your name and something basic about yourself that relates to the context of the meeting
  • Extend your right hand and shake the right hand of the other person firmly for a few seconds

When introducing others, be sure to:

  • Say both people’s names during the introduction
  • Include information that puts each person in appropriate context or identify something they have in common

Basic Table Manners

Table manners are important wherever you are. They show courtesy, respect, and your desire to fit into the culture or business environment. Whether you are dining in someone’s home or in a restaurant, practice good manners until they come naturally to you.

The table setting below is fairly typical of restaurants where you may have professional meetings.

Formal Placesetting


  • Place the napkin in your lap upon sitting down.
  • Sit up straight (comfortably, but not rigid).
  • Ask your server questions about the menu (if you have any).
  • Work from the outside in when in doubt about which utensil to use. The utensil will match the course being served. Follow others if you get confused.
  • Use polite language such as “please” and “thank you.”
  • Introduce yourself to people you do not know and speak about topics that are of common interest to the table. If you are sitting between two people, spend time speaking with each of them.
  • Eat slowly, taking your cues about the pace of the meal from the rest of the people at the table.
  • Ask for someone to pass an item if it is out of reach.
  • Pass items across your body, not another person’s body and always pass the salt and pepper together.
  • Put a piece of bread or roll and the amount of butter you will be using on your Bread and Butter Plate. Tear off a small piece of bread, butter it and then eat it. 
  • Cut off a small piece and eat one bite at a time if what you are eating is larger than one bite.
  • Spoon soup away from your body and sip soup from the side of the spoon without slurping.  
  • Place all dirty utensils on flat serving dishes only (plates, not bowls) and not on the table.
  • Loosely place the napkin to the left of the dinner plate when finished.
  • If you must leave table, place your napkin on the back of your chair.
  • Speak in low tones, just enough to be heard.

Do not:

  • Place your elbows on the table.
  • Order the most expensive item on the menu unless you are the host.
  • Order alcoholic beverages unless you are encouraged by a host to do so. (Remember: you don’t have to drink it!)
  • Speak on your cell phone at the table or speak with your mouth full.
  • Begin eating until everyone has been served (unless each person without food gives permission for you to start).
  • Season your food until you taste it.
  • Blow on your food (let it cool naturally).
  • If you must remove an item of food from your mouth, discreetly remove it the way you put it in your mouth (if possible).
  • If you need assistance from a server, catch his/her attention discreetly and ask your question quietly, or excuse yourself and seek out a server away from the table.
  • Ask for a “doggie bag.”

Phone Etiquette

Business is frequently conducted over the phone.  Because this may be your first communication with a business professional, make a great first impression by giving the right message.


During a job search, remember that employers will be learning about you and contacting you in a number of ways. An employer may have to leave you a message on your voice-mail.  For all landlines, broadband and cell phones, your recorded outgoing message should be simple and professional, stating that you are unavailable and inviting the caller to leave a message.

Cell Phone Use

Turn your cell phone to silent or vibrate if you are interacting with other people.  If you are expecting an emergency call that truly cannot wait, let those with whom you are meeting know that you might receive an emergency call, and politely excuse yourself to take or return the call. Find a quiet place where your caller can hear you clearly.

When calling someone or leaving a message:

  • Speak slowly and clearly.
  • Introduce yourself and state the reason you are calling.  
  • Ask for/mention the person you wish to speak with directly
  • If your call has to be transferred, thank the answerer for her/his assistance.
  • Repeat your name and number if you need to leave a message.

E-mail Etiquette

E-mail is an accepted and expected mode of communication in the work world. Messages are sent to specific individuals but they can actually gain more public visibility through forwarding, copying and even human error. As a rule of thumb, never write or forward an e-mail that you would not want to be seen by strangers or a professional colleague.

Choosing a Professional E-mail Address

During a job search, remember that employers will most likely contact you via e-mail at some point. Your Brandeis e-mail address is a good choice to offer because it (usually) contains your name and connects you with a prestigious university. If you use a non-Brandeis account such as Gmail, Yahoo or Microsoft, be sure that the identity part of your address is professional.

Sending Professional e-mails

When sending e-mails to colleagues, professors, or prospective employers, be sure to consider the following:

  • Proofread the e-mail before you send it to ensure proper spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • Double-check the to, cc and bcc fields to ensure you are e-mailing the appropriate person or group.
  • For larger mailings, use the bcc: field or consider a mail merge.
  • Do not overuse abbreviations or acronyms that others may not understand.
  • Be careful with formatting that may not translate properly through e-mail.
  • Do not copy a message or attachment without permission.
  • Do not use e-mail to discuss confidential information.
  • Avoid using URGENT and IMPORTANT in the subject line or body of the e-mail.
  • Keep your language gender-neutral.
  • Use the cc: field sparingly and appropriately.
  • If you send it from the office, it comes from the office; keep your language and subject matter professional, discreet and formal.
  • Be particularly careful to only use “Reply All” when you need to do so.


You may see the letters “RSVP” at the bottom of a hand-written, printed or electronic invitation. This is an abbreviation for a French phrase, répondez s'il vous plait, requesting that you contact the event’s host to say whether or not you will be attending. There is usually a date next to these letters that is the last date by which you can tell the host if you plan to participate.


Try to reply to all invitations within 1 to 2 days, even if the RSVP date gives you more time, or if a formal request for a response has not been made. Do not ask to bring a guest unless the invitation specifically states that you may invite another person to accompany you.

Type of Event

An invitation may indicate that the event is “casual,” “informal,” “formal,” or even “black tie.” These words refer to the level of formality of the event and also signify the type of clothing appropriate for the event. Examples of other types of invitations may be “pot luck” (you are expected to bring a food item that will be shared by all) or “come as you are” (informal).

Change of Plans

If you can no longer attend the event to which you have RSVP’d, promptly let the host know that you will not be able to attend and acknowledge any inconvenience that your change of plans may cause.

More Information

Whether you are a U.S. or international student, do not hesitate to talk with trusted advisers such as a Hiatt counselor, friends, professors or others about etiquette.