Q&A with Etiquette Expert Dorenda McNeil


Dorenda McNeil - photo - February 25 2016If I am at a lavish gala and I see someone cutting a dinner roll with a knife, I do not get upset. Sure, you’re supposed to tear a roll with your fingers, but I’ve met many good people who never learned it’s a faux pas. I am more bothered by business or personal encounters where the person seems to not care enough to try and engage in a respectful, professional manner. At this stage in my life, I no longer take things personally, but I do know that some people will take what they perceive to be rude behaviour or poor social skills very personally—and it could cost the offending party a job or a referral.

Ironically, all our communications devices have made connecting even more difficult. On the one hand, we are constantly texting, emailing and posting; however, every time we turn our gaze to our phone, we are shutting out those who are right in front of us. There is also the temptation to overshare online, whether that’s posting a photo of yourself in a bikini on a booze cruise or tearing someone you know professionally to shreds on a Facebook post.

Toronto-based etiquette expert Dorenda McNeil tackles these challenges in her book Virtually Perfect Business Etiquette: Workplace Tips for the Digital Generation. With more than 20 years’ experience in public relations, Dorenda identifies some common blunders she has observed over the years and takes etiquette into the 21st century by offering guidelines about how to be technology and socially savvy.

Dorenda graciously gave me some of her time to discuss her book and offer some tips for young professionals trying to network and build strategic, professional relationships.

Why did you choose to write a book about etiquette? 

The inspiration to write the book was a trifecta of sorts.

First, as a public relations professional, a big part of my job is helping my clients with their communication skills and effectively deal with the media.  I began to realize that no matter how succinct, smart and compelling their messages were, if they didn’t have the polish to carry off their ideas it was often a wasted opportunity.  More importantly, it was the little things that sabotaged them as they interacted with reporters—not standing to shake hands, sketchy eye contact, or poor follow-up email communication.  The world is becoming more frenetic and virtual, and I recognized that there was a need to talk about the importance of mastering softer skills in communication.

Second, my interactions with the younger generation helped push me to write this book.  Specifically, I had an encounter with a young employee in my firm.  We were at a client event and I asked her for the time.  The associate pulled out her phone, made a few swipes, and flashed the screen in front of me.  She literally flashed it, because along with confirming it was 8:35 a.m., I saw that the wallpaper on her screen was a photo of herself and her boyfriend—naked in bed.  I froze.  She didn’t flinch.  For some strange reason, it didn’t occur to her that it was incredibly unprofessional to display a photo like that to her boss in a work environment. I later learned that these types of incidents weren’t isolated.

Third, I found that the people I most admired in business, the workplace, and life in general had a good grasp of etiquette. They were confident, self-assured, and excelled in those softer skills of communication. Even though they may not have been the smartest, wittiest or most accomplished of professionals, they thrived. On a measurable scale, universities around the world were seeing it in their graduates. It was a trend I couldn’t resist exploring.

As you researched for your book, did anything surprise you? 

Two things surprised me. First, there are so many different approaches and nuanced standards when it comes to etiquette. It can become confusing for people, and I sometimes have to defend certain approaches. As a communication professional, I was confused myself at times. I always remind people that the premise of etiquette is “to make the other person more comfortable.” I stress that as long as you use that definition as a guiding principal, you’ll be stellar.

Second, the younger generation—the millennials—actually really want to learn about etiquette.  They know it’s important to brush up on their skills, but they haven’t been given the tools or reinforcements to do so.  I began to think that perhaps it was the older generation that has failed them by not reinforcing the importance of these skills.

Has social media made good etiquette more challenging? 

Absolutely.  On a positive note, social media has brought millions of people together.  So much good is being done on a global scale because the world has become smaller, and people have been given a voice and platform to enact changes and voice their opinions.

On the negative side—and it’s a big one—social media has enabled people to become incredibly narcissistic and self-absorbed.  In addition to constantly looking at screens and devices, people focus on themselves and don’t actually engage with others. Eye contact has gone down the tube.  Conversation skills have suffered. In general, civility has declined. As an example, let’s imagine that 15 years ago you brought 150 printed “selfie” photographs into the office and placed them on a lunchroom table for everyone to admire. It sounds absurd, right?  Yet, we accept that type of behaviour with social media. Working with people every day is challenging enough. Throw in a big dash of narcissism and it’s even more difficult.

What is the worst blunder you have come across? 

Clipping fingernails during a meeting.

What etiquette advice would you offer young professionals who are trying to make a name for themselves? 

If I could summarize my etiquette advice into one word it would be—engage.  Quit focusing entirely on yourself, and work towards making other people more comfortable and interested in what you have to offer—which is the essence of etiquette. Ask questions. Put down your phones, look into people’s eyes, and give people your undivided attention when you speak to them. Take pride in how you dress and present yourself. It may seem like common sense to most of us, but you’d be surprised. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I really believe that’s key when you’re trying to make a name for yourself.

The competition is tough in the job market. Learn the soft skills that are going to make you more confident, more memorable, and give you a competitive edge.

Oh, and buy my book.

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