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What I’ve Learned: “Remember that You’re Onstage”

An Etiquette expert on dressing professionally, using social media , and nailing a job interview. Her top tip? Put away that cell phone.

“We need to show respect to other people to receive respect,” says Pamela Eyring. Photograph by Kevin Koski.

Pamela Eyring didn’t plan to become an etiquette expert.

After high school, she took a job as a clerk stenographer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up. “I needed to get a job,” she says. “My mother was raising me as a single mother, and I was eager to work.”

She ended up staying 23 years—going to college at night and working her way up, eventually becoming chief of protocol. In that position, she planned events for international visitors, organized official dinners, and oversaw parades, military award functions, and other ceremonies.

But she never had formal training. “I learned by scar tissue,” she says. “You make a mistake and you embarrass yourself or your command or your community. I didn’t want others to go through that.”

Eventually she heard about the Protocol School of Washington. Founded in 1988, it offered a weeklong program in corporate etiquette and international protocol. The course was designed to train the trainers so they could go back to their workplaces and teach their colleagues. Eyring signed up and came to Washington, then, when she returned to Dayton, began offering the school’s copyrighted classes to her staff and coworkers at Wright-Patterson. “I loved helping people learn,” she says. When the school’s founder, Dorothea Johnson, decided to sell it in 2005, Eyring seized the opportunity.

Today people come from all over to take classes at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. The school also offers on-site seminars and in 2009 began courses in Dubai. Students have come from such organizations as the FBI, Boeing, Forbes, and George Washington University. They learn about everything from business entertaining to cubicle etiquette to how to give an effective presentation.

At the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Eyring sat down to talk about how the American workplace is changing—and how employees can make themselves stand out.

What’s the difference between protocol and etiquette?

I think of protocol as the science. It’s the rules that society puts on us—or we put on ourselves—so that there’s not chaos.

Etiquette is the art of knowing those rules and putting them into practice. You can’t have one without the other. But strength overdone can become a weakness. So if you have too much protocol—rules, rules, rules—you’re not going to build relationships. We’re teaching both.

Has the workplace gotten ruder?

I think in many ways we really have stepped backwards as a society. We’re very individualistic, and we’re also becoming one of the most casual nations in the world. We’re losing our people skills. We’re losing relationships, and we’re probably losing prospects and clients.

I think we’re getting tired of the rudeness and incivilities in the workplace—people cutting their toenails in the cube next to you. Believe it. I’ve been hired to come fix that.

We get comfortable in our environment, and we forget that what we do at home is different from what we do at work. If you want to eat with your elbows on the table at home, go for it. I love holding my pizza when I eat it. But that’s casual. When we’re at work, we’re onstage. We need to show respect to other people to receive respect. You earn respect the old-fashioned way, not because you have a fancy title in Washington. It’s because of how you portray yourself as a professional.

What’s the biggest problem you see?

Electronic communication. We have these devices at our fingertips, so it’s easy to send an e-mail and hide behind a laptop screen.

People are taking their cell phones into meetings and texting while the boss is speaking. Or they’re leaving their cell phones on their desks in ring mode and they go to a meeting and the phones are ringing and ringing and ringing. They’re putting them on the dinner table—it’s a distraction for everyone.

The worst: People will hear their phone vibrate while they’re having a conversation and they’ll look at their phone and they’ll text. They try to multitask. We’re addicted to it.

What are the etiquette rules when it comes to technology?

You should keep your phone on vibrate. And do not take it into a meeting. If you do, don’t put it on the table, because when it vibrates it makes noise.

Aside from technology, what are the most common etiquette mistakes people make in the workplace?

One of the worst is business attire. Men don’t have as many problems because they don’t have a plethora of fashion choices. They have a uniform. Their biggest mistakes are unpolished, scuffed shoes and wrinkled clothes. I tell men to remember that people judge you by your shoes and your watch.

A lot of people—both men and women—do not tailor their clothes. You’ll see jackets that were bought off the shelf and that come down to the knuckles.

For women, it’s harder. It’s having no makeup. Makeup makes a woman look more friendly. You don’t need nighttime makeup but just a little bit to make you look more approachable.

The worst is sexiness in the office. I am very happy to see that some retailers are bringing in the Mad Men flavor of fashion, with beautiful dresses for women. Still stylish, a little fashion-forward, but not over the edge. And they’re not showing a lot of cleavage or too much skin.

What guidelines would you give a woman shopping for work clothes?

As women, we gain weight, we lose weight. If we don’t change our clothes to fit the gain or the loss, then we look a mess. We don’t look professional. Physically, your clothes need to fit you—that’s the number-one tip.

I don’t like looking at women’s breasts—and sometimes we don’t realize that designers are cutting shirts so low. When we look in a mirror, we’re fine. But the minute you lean over or if someone is looking down at your desk and you’re looking up, they can see everything.

I look at men at a law firm or in the government and what do they wear? Suits and ties, suits and ties. It helps them blend in. I’m not saying women should dress like men, but they should dress professionally. You’ll be treated differently. When women dress too casually or too fashion-forward, they don’t get the same respect—from men or women.

When does it make sense to write a handwritten thank-you note, and when is it okay to send an e-mail?

If you had lunch with a colleague you hadn’t seen in a while and had a great time, sending an e-mail is fine. But if you’re invited to your boss’s home or you asked a mentor for advice—something out of the ordinary—a written note is appropriate.

We’re getting hundreds of e-mails a day. If you write a thank-you e-mail, they are going to open it, think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and delete it. A note on nice stationery stands out. It can be short. Just make sure to spell everything correctly and write neatly.

What tips do you have for someone going into a job interview?

First, research the company’s history, know about its customers, read everything you can find so you can talk its talk. You want to bridge your skills with its needs.

Take a look at yourself. Have you had a makeover in a while? Do you need a haircut? If you have a lot of gray and you are going to be competing against young people, maybe dye your hair. Make sure your nails are nice.

Be five to ten minutes early. Anxiety comes up when you’re running late.

Feel good about what you’re wearing—that it fits appropriately, it’s not too big or too tight, not too much cleavage, not too fashion-forward. It may sound boring, but be that way to some extent.

Remember, gatekeepers talk. Be polite and courteous to the receptionist.

You want to shake hands with everyone. If there are multiple people, give a nice firm handshake to everyone. Firm but no bone-crushers.

When you come in, stand out of courtesy until you’re asked to sit. And when you sit, be engaged in the conversation. Don’t lean back. Don’t give that attitude of arrogance. Sit up straight and keep your feet on the floor.

What are the most common mistakes people make in interviews?

Definitely the attire. Statistics show that 55 percent of that first impression is based on the way you look. We’re very visual people. Immediately, in 30 seconds, that impression is made.

The second one is eye contact. People judge you on your eye contact: Are you trustworthy? Are you lying? Of course, people understand nervousness, but you don’t want it to look like you’re lying about your qualifications. Keep good eye contact throughout the conversation.

What about bosses? How should they behave in the office?

I always say to bosses, “Keep in mind that everyone is watching you.” The people who work for you will model what you do. If you are texting in the middle of your employee’s briefing, they’re going to think it’s okay to do that, too.

Employees want the boss to be a good leader, someone they can talk to, share problems with, get advice from. They also want someone they can approach without being scared of getting yelled at.

So many people dread networking events. Any tips?

This is the one that adults—no matter what level or position they are in—have anxiety about. That’s why a lot of people don’t go. We’re afraid of rejection.

When you attend a function, make sure you have plenty of business cards. Men, don’t put them in your wallet. There’s nothing worse than getting a business card that is curved and stuck together because it was in somebody’s wallet.

Be well informed. Read the paper. Know what’s going on, especially if you’re in a new area, so that you have some small talk.

In Washington, it’s very easy to go up to a person and say, “So what do you do?” We get a lot of complaints from people who come here for business and hate when someone from Washington asks them that question. If you’re going to ask it, engage in conversation with that person even if they don’t have the title you were looking for. It’s not really the question that bothers people; it’s the reaction. Don’t say, “Oh, that’s great,” and walk away.

Watch out for talking about politics when you first meet someone. Try to keep it positive. Small talk is not profound conversation. Good topics are the weather, recent news, movies.

The hardest part of networking is when you’re coming up to a group of people and you don’t know them and you want to get in. First, avoid anyone in deep conversation. Are they not smiling? Are they whispering? That’s not the group you want. Look for a group that’s open, lighthearted.

You want to get in their line of sight, close enough to make eye contact, and then just smile. When you get eye contact, they’ll notice. And then you just ask, “May I join you?” What are they going to say—no? Then you introduce yourself to each person, saying your first and last name. If you have a difficult name, say it slowly and clearly. Watch out for talking too softly.

Then be ready with small talk. You can’t just introduce yourself and stand there and say, “Okay, now entertain me.”

How about using social media like Facebook and LinkedIn to network?

Social media is great for networking. I’m a fan of Facebook and LinkedIn when they’re used properly. Keep your résumé and information about yourself current. The most important thing is don’t use it just to sell something, especially to someone you don’t know well.

Think before you post. Is this too edgy? I’ve seen cuss words and stereotyping. Think of it as public—because it is.

What rules are there for social events and happy hours with colleagues?

Remember that you’re still onstage. Jack Welch, when he was CEO of GE, used to plan these huge socials. He would watch his employees, especially the ones he was trying to groom for that next level. Did they go straight to the bar and drink all evening and hang with their peers? Or did they socialize with some of the other guests they didn’t know?

So don’t think that the leaders in your company are not watching. And vice versa. There’s nothing worse than seeing the boss drunk or hitting on your colleagues.

Is business etiquette different in Washington than in other cities?

I think we’re more formal because the government is here. But we’re also fast-paced. We’re moving so quickly and multitasking that sometimes we’re seen as ruder. We’re more direct in Washington, I think, than other places, even New York. There’s still charm and courteousness in social settings, but in business it’s gotten really hardcore. Maybe it’s the economy and politics that are driving this.

What have you learned?

It’s not rocket science. It’s simply looking at the environment that you work in and showing respect to others who will be working with you.

We need technology, but we also need to be able to have a conversation with a person—and do business with actual people.

Etiquette can help you professionally. It can help you get the job and help you keep the job.

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

  • Thank you so much for shaing! Great article!

  • Excellent advice and much needed in today's professional arenas. Thank you for sharing.

  • VA

    A good tip I learned for making small talk: Instead of asking, "What do you do?", ask "What's been keeping you busy?" It's open-ended and gives the other person the option to talk about their work or something else they're interested in.

  • Great tips!

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