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How to Make a Good First Impression – Understanding Business Etiquette


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Did you know that people decide how they feel about you within the first three seconds of meeting? This reaction, an auto-response generated in the most primitive part of our brains, evolved in our early pre-human ancestors when instant decisions about friend or foe were required to survive. The way we look and act generates subconscious impressions and comparisons with “stereotypes” in the minds of observers, often generating powerful emotions and judgments.

First impressions, even when untrue representations, are difficult to dislodge and change. A “good” first impression can be a powerful impetus for your career, just as a negative impression can be an impossible obstacle to overcome.

Etiquette and Your First Impression

As a former senior executive of a multi-billion-dollar service company and a small business owner, I am constantly surprised by the naiveté of job applicants or new employees in their failure to recognize the importance of etiquette and manners in the workplace. There are few jobs that are so demanding or unique that they fit a single individual; in fact, for most jobs and promotions, there are literally hundreds of candidates with similar experience, competence, and skills.

Often, the decision of whom to hire, promote, or work with boils down to likability. In other words, the ability to make others comfortable around you is more often than not the reason for personal success.

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Standards of Business Etiquette

Business etiquette is the commonly accepted code of conduct in the business world governing relationships between people. The minimum requirements to make a favorable first impression include several standards:

  • Be on Time. Being prompt shows respect for others and a recognition that their time is valuable.
  • Dress Appropriately. Most offices establish formal or informal dress standards. If you have questions about the appropriate attire, err on the formal side. You can always slip off a necktie; however, switching from jeans and a sweatshirt to a suit is more difficult.
  • Smile. A smile makes you more approachable and stimulates a return smile from others.
  • Address People by Their Last Name. Don’t use a person’s first or familiar name unless invited to do so.
  • Maintain Eye Contact. Avoiding another’s eyes give the impression that you have something to hide or lack confidence. However, be aware that in other countries, direct eye contact may be viewed as impolite or aggressive.
  • Speak Clearly. Enunciate in a voice loud enough to be heard, but soft enough to avoid startling others.
  • Deliver a Firm Handshake. Practice your handshake to be sure you’re neither a “bone-crusher” nor a “limp fish.”
Business Etiquette Standards

“Do’s” and “Don’ts” of Day-to-Day Business Conduct

Whether you’re a new employee, a manager in the midst of your career, or a seasoned business executive, good manners should be a daily practice. Showing respect and appreciation for other people in all situations is a sign of maturity and self-confidence.

Practicing the following “do’s” and “don’ts” can improve your work and social environments, as well as your chances to be recognized as an effective manager and team member.


1. Use the Words “Please” and “Thank You” Generously
Treat people as you would expect to be treated if the roles were reversed. Do you like being ordered about, or having your concerns ignored? Most people don’t, but managers caught up in their daily duties often forget and peremptorily issue directions as if their subordinates were machines to be turned on and off. And respond graciously with a “you’re welcome” or “my pleasure” when you are the recipient of “please” or “thank you.”

2. Remember Names and Use Them Frequently
Each of us is uniquely attached to our name, and pay particular attention when we hear it voiced. Hearing our name reinforces our ego and affirms our identity. Hearing our name makes us feel good. Be careful though: If you use a name too much, it can appear manipulative.

3. Remain Civil Despite Provocation
Mark Twain advised, “Never argue with a fool – onlookers might not be able to tell the difference.” Disagreements and conflict are a part of everyday life. However, there is an appropriate time and place to hash out disputes when cooler heads can prevail.

4. Show Respect for Others at All Times
Someone once said that respect was a two-way street – if you want to get it, you have to give it. It is easy to defer to people whom we consider important or superior. The real test of our character is how we treat those who serve us – the waitress in the cafe, or the clerk at the drugstore.

5. Listen
In a world of 24/7 electronic communication and constant multitasking, it is easy to ignore or pay partial attention to the person speaking to you. How many times in meetings do you focus on text messages, rather than the speaker? How often are one-on-one meetings with your peers interrupted by a cell phone ring? Intended or not, texting during group meetings, taking calls during personal meetings, or impatiently glancing at your watch in the midst of a conversation signals to the physical speaker in front of you that he or she is not important enough to deserve your full attention. Therefore, it is important to take the time to listen and keep proper cell phone etiquette in mind.


1. Don’t Engage in Gossip, Malicious Comments, or Tasteless Jokes
Such behavior says more about you than the person to whom you are referring, and it’s not a complimentary message. Obviously, profanity and cursing is never appropriate in a professional setting.

2. Don’t Forget to Guard Your Online Presence
Social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are visited millions of times a day by friends and strangers. Most companies review such sites before hiring a new employee or extending a promotion offer as part of their due diligence. Be careful regarding what you post, as it will be public for years to come. Don’t post any pictures, write any emails, or make any comments that would make you uncomfortable if your mother visited your site.

3. Don’t Discuss Politics or Religion
Most people have strong feelings about both subjects, holding positions which you might consider irrational. There is no upside to engaging in discussions about either politics or religion since you are unlikely to change anyone’s mind and such conversations can quickly degenerate into rancor and hurt feelings.

4. Don’t Give Inappropriate or Improper Gifts
Many companies have strict prohibitions regarding the receipt of business gifts, including meals and entertainment, to avoid any suggestion of favoritism or impropriety. The purpose of a business gift is to thank the recipient for his or her business, time, or, in the case of employees, their contributions to your success. Don’t expect a quid pro quo; if you are giving a present with strings attached, it is likely to be inappropriate.

Foreign Culture Business Etiquette

Business Etiquette in Foreign Cultures

If your business takes you to other countries, you should investigate that culture’s business practices to identify what is expected and what might constitute a “blunder.” For example, in Brazil, personal space is not as important as it is to Americans, with frequent pats and touches. Unlike America, a Chinese businessman might expect a small gift representing your company upon meeting. Formally exchanging business cards is a ritual practiced in Japan, while the wearing of leather or eating beef would be an insult to many in India, since cows are sacred. Take the time to learn about the business culture before and during your foreign interaction.

Final Word

Proper etiquette and good manners never go out of style because they demonstrate a respect for others, an attitude often overlooked in the chaotic, frenzied world of business competition. The exercise of good manners slows the pace and focuses on the interactions between people. They can help you win the favor and confidence of others, and improve your chances of success.

Are good manners overlooked in your company? Do you believe that proper etiquette is still important in the modern business community?


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Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.