Mind Your Manners

In our increasingly casual world, it's essential to not relinquish the rules of polite society.
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Today's culture, both business and personal, has become increasingly informal. Just as many of us no longer wear a suit and carry a briefcase each day, our behavior has also become more casual. So we sometimes overlook the little things that make the good life flow more smoothly: manners.

But cultivating considerate behavior can have a positive impact on our lives through strengthening our personal and professional ties.

Some of us may feel we have room for improvement when we hear etiquette advice from media manners mavens such as Dear Abby, the Fab Five from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," or updates from old-school experts such as

Emily Post.

Polly Meyer felt the call to a more gracious way of life when she started working for Seattle-based event planners

Two Downtown. She was impressed with how the firm's partners, Howard Weiner and Lance Kostrobala, treated people as well as the gracious atmosphere they cultivated at work and at home.

Meyer's not the first to feel that way. In the late 1970s, Weiner and Kostrobala were struggling artists in Reno, Nev., who enjoyed giving parties. Their guests appreciated the food, the imaginative decor, the good lighting that made everyone look fabulous, but mostly they loved the pampering and their hosts' concern for their comfort.

Weiner and Kostrobala's switch from amateur to professional standing began when one of their guests said, "You guys are so good at this, will you organize a party for me?"

Almost 30 years later, they're still at it, with a roster of clients that includes

Boeing

(BA) - Get Report

,

Microsoft

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and the Seattle Opera.

The 2DT attitude toward manners focuses on being conscious of ways to feel comfortable in business and social interactions, and in letting friends and associates know that they're appreciated. "Being considerate, that's what manners are all about," says 2DT Executive Vice President Weiner. Here are some of their other essential tips.

Make a Note of It

A good first step in cultivating a more gracious lifestyle is making a practice of sending thank-you notes to show appreciation when you've received a gift or been entertained by someone.

"Thank-you notes are paramount, professionally and personally," Weiner says. "They make a huge difference for such a small effort."

It's also considerate to recognize the special dates in the lives of our nearest and dearest. When you've been invited to a wedding or a birthday party, or have received a birth announcement, mark the date on next year's calendar or on your Palm Pilot as a reminder.

Recognizing these milestones "really affects the quality of friendships and professional relationships," 2DT Office Manager Polly Meyer says, "It's a heartfelt iteration for the people we're connected to."

Though a phone call or an email is better than no acknowledgement, a hand-written note is more appropriate and makes a better impression.

Katie Coffman, a Seattle-based freelance project manager for special events, says, "The paper it's written on, the envelope it comes in, the style of writing ... even though it's a letter, there's a personality to it. Email is all the same, all the time, so you have no idea -- even if it's a simple thank you -- what the intent is."

Join the Party

While there's an art to entertaining, there's also a knack to being a good guest. Weiner and 2DT President Lance Kostrobala brainstormed through a litany of recommendations on having a good time and making life easier for a host who is entertaining at home. Among them:

  • Don't ask for a multi-ingredient cocktail like a Lemon Drop; stick with beer or wine.
  • Don't bring flowers that require arranging: anything more complicated than putting them in a vase of water makes an extra task for the host.
  • Don't bring food without checking with the host. There are multiple reasons for this, including health issues like allergies or special diets, and practical considerations such as no room in the fridge. Also, your unannounced dish may not work well with the host's carefully planned menu.

With flowers and prepared food off the list, what is an appropriate gift when you don't want to arrive empty-handed? That can be a puzzler, especially if you don't know the host -- say, if you're meeting your future in-laws, or have been invited by a friend of a friend.

"In a way, the playwright who did Six Degrees of Separation nailed it," Weiner says. "It was the quintessential Wasp gift that's perfect for everyone: a pot of jam. It shows your commitment, your sense of generosity. It shows good taste, and won't offend anybody."

A final tip to keep you on the best-guest list: Regardless of what type of event you're attending, double-check if it's OK to bring a friend, your spouse or your kids.

Communication provides the key to behaving appropriately. If you have any special needs or questions about who or what to bring, what to wear, or the level of formality of the occasion, just contact your host in advance for guidelines.

Work It

Manners also come into play on the business front. Dressing appropriately makes a good impression, as does addressing people properly. Communication, again, is crucial. If you have any doubts about what to wear to a meeting with another company, ask your contact with the firm what the company's culture is, and take your cue from that.

And if you're meeting someone for the first time and aren't sure what to call them, it shows respect to err on the side of formality until corrected.

Just as in personal life, thoughtfulness and consideration are watchwords in dealing with colleagues. 2DT Project Manager Sarah Cabatit says, "When you're working with people, you become a partner, and if you're working in the same cultural vocabulary, it lends itself to the success of the project."

Internationally Speaking

Weiner says, "Our more relaxed approach to social intercourse is ironic, because as our world gets smaller and we have business dealings with people from different cultures, if one isn't sensitive to the cultural differences and how those people like to conduct business, American companies can really miss out on business opportunities."

When we deal with international companies, we may unwittingly make a statement through our gifts, use of colors, body language or punctuality. It pays to brush up on cultural customs before trips.

"We should not only treat our business associates and clients as we would want to be treated; we have to find out how they want to be treated," Weiner says. "We have to think of how they will receive our behavior -- and manners are all about behavior."

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Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.