Personal Stories of America at Work

The Modern Manners Maven

Etiquette consultant Arden Clise teaches the finer points of conduct to boost confidence and avoid awkwardness

"Don't worry, I'm not on duty."

“I have been in business for years, but had never heard of an etiquette consultant before I met Arden. I grew up in a traditional mid-western family in which we learned at a young age which fork to use and when thank you notes were mandatory. I was intrigued with the idea that a whole industry has sprung up to teach adults traditional and modern (think social media) etiquette. Speaking from her office in Seattle, Arden explained how she helps businesspeople to be more confident, and how we can all avoid common pitfalls at our next business lunch.”

- Molly Rosen, Managing Editor and Chronicler

You still get invited to dinner parties?!

When I tell people what I do for a living, there are usually two responses: (1) they say “everyone needs that,” or (2) they stiffen and start getting tense, thinking I’m going to point out what they’re doing wrong.

I was online recently with some other etiquette consultants. One wrote that she was tired of the grief she gets when sitting down at a dinner party. Someone often says, “I don’t want to sit next to the etiquette consultant because then I’m going to have to watch my manners.” I wrote back, “Just dinner parties? I get grief everywhere!” And then someone else wrote, “You still get invited to dinner parties?!”

To cope with the awkwardness of these situations, I often say when meeting people, “Don’t worry, I’m not on duty.” Or, “I’ll only correct you if you pay me.”

The realm of rudeness

How did I get into this field? Early in my career, I worked at a large financial institution where I managed the sponsorships of community organizations. Often that meant supporting fundraising lunches and dinners. I was responsible for filling our allotted sponsor table with our employees.  I would look around at the people seated and would frequently see terror in their eyes as they realized they didn’t know which utensil to use or which bread plate was theirs. It sets off a chain reaction, and the person at the other side of the table ends up not having a plate or a glass. I thought to myself, “I could really help people feel more comfortable in this type of situation.” But I didn’t realize that people actually do that kind of work, so I let it go.

Later on, I decided to work with a career coach to explore starting my own business. I found that the terms protocol and etiquette came up in our discussions. She suggested that I google those terms and see what I could find. I was blown away—I discovered a whole world of etiquette consulting around the country, and even around the globe.

It’s a growing industry because people realize that we’ve swung too far into the realm of rudeness and disrespect. It’s costing us contacts and clients, and ultimately business and friends. I work with both companies and individuals. Companies usually hire me to do training or consultations with their sales staff on how to make a great first impression through body language, a confident handshake, and professional attire. Individuals hire me to help improve specific skills.

A man once hired me to teach him networking—he shadowed me at a networking event, and then I watched him and gave him feedback. I told him not to be afraid to share funny little stories about himself like the ones he had shared with me on the way to the event. I also encouraged him to ask clarifying questions when he didn’t understand what someone was talking about. He was afraid that would make him look stupid, but I assured him that people love to talk about themselves; and when you show a sincere interest in them, they will feel a connection to you.

Another client of mine was the owner of a small manufacturing company. She and two of her employees were going to a trade show and asked for help on “boothmanship”—how to staff their tradeshow booth to maximize their traffic and, ultimately, their leads. They wanted to know how they could encourage people to come talk to them, how to get out of conversations that were clearly going nowhere, and how to deal with disgruntled clients. We did a series of role plays addressing these types of situations.

This work, whether it’s with individuals or groups, is really satisfying for me. Equally important is the fact that I am running my own business. I never enjoyed office politics or having to get approval on an idea or project. I find that’s true for most small-business owners. Being my own boss has its challenges, but I wouldn’t trade it for going back into the corporate world.

Thank you for retweeting

Technology is changing etiquette because people have become unaware of their behavior. They are so tuned into their devices. For example, I recently met with someone for the first time. We sat down for coffee when her phone rang. She looked at the number and said, “My sister is calling, probably about the family reunion.” She picked it up and talked with her sister while I was sitting there, feeling very uncomfortable. She was a bright, successful woman, but she hadn’t been taught that’s not OK. It would be like sitting down with someone and then just getting up and walking out of the room. It’s especially noticeable with young people, who were raised with these devices. Some of them are losing the ability to read body language because so much of their interaction is online now.

Another troubling change in behavior I see is people forget to say thank you. On Twitter, people often don’t even acknowledge when someone “retweets” or posts their message to their followers. And some people may remember to send a thank you note, but send it via email.  I personally think thank you notes should never be sent by email. Sitting down to write a personal note is such a beautiful thing—writing to say thank you for the lovely party, the thoughtful gift or the recommendation you wrote for me. It makes you stand out—you’re remembered for that. It’s important to be thankful, to connect with people, to build relationships. That’s what this work is all about.

Things have changed

I have a ton of etiquette books for my own ongoing research. I also subscribe to other etiquette consultants’ newsletters and blogs, and follow them on Twitter to make sure I’m staying current. There are differences among the regions. The East Coast and South tend to be more formal— for example, it may not be appropriate to address someone by their first name right away.

It’s funny reading some of the original etiquette books. Wow—things have changed! I have one by Amy Vanderbilt from the 1950s—back then, women in business were usually secretaries. In one book she addresses questions like, “Is it appropriate for me to put my steno pad on my boss’s desk?” It used to be that women would always remain seated during social introductions; now, women usually stand up. More and more women are hosting male clients, and some of the male clients still feel like they, as the man, should pay for the meal. I recommend—and I do this myself—that the female host make prearrangements with the restaurant to ensure they get the bill, or even to give the restaurant host their credit card before sitting down to avoid the awkward check grab.

Things have changed internationally as well. There are differences among cultures: how close we stand to each other, how firm our handshake is, our attire, our eye contact. When President Obama visited Japan, there was a big brouhaha about how deep his bow was, and whether it was too deep and portrayed the U.S. as being of lesser stature than Japan. Etiquette consultants from Japan and the U.S. weighed in heavily, with the general conclusion of the American consultants being that it was too deep, and the Japanese consultants saying that it was appropriate. We try not to get into politics in our field, but it’s about perception and it’s hard to completely divorce yourself from politics.

Waiter, there’s a bug in my dinner

One of my clients said that they have a lot of people transacting business over meals, and some employees aren’t comfortable and are making mistakes. So I did a dining etiquette tutorial where we had a lunch together, and I went through how to hold your utensils and how to be a good host. For example, always give your guest the best seat, the one facing out, not facing the wall.  Wait until you’ve had small talk, and place the order before talking business. A good host should follow the guest’s lead, for example by asking the guest if he or she wants appetizers or dessert, and then doing the same. So even if you don’t want dessert, if your guest orders dessert, go ahead and order one yourself so that your guest is not eating alone.

Or let’s say you’ve got a bug in your food, what do you do? You’re never supposed to make a big deal about anything—you should be discreet while at the table. If you can, kill the bug without drawing attention to your dilemma. If the very thought of that makes you want to die, then call the waiter over and quietly explain that there’s a bug in your food and ask him to take it away and bring a new dish. Don’t totally stop eating because it will make your guest feel uncomfortable.

Once when I was in the financial industry, my employee and I were out to lunch with a client. We sat across from our client, who suddenly sneezed and coughed at the same time, spraying all over my employee’s meal. It was pretty disgusting. My employee didn’t want to draw attention to it, but couldn’t really eat anymore, so she just claimed that she was full. The client didn’t notice anything.

These are the kinds of things I learned in etiquette training school.  There are several schools in the U.S.; the one I went to was in Missouri called The Etiquette Institute. There is a big school in D.C. called The Protocol School of Washington. At these schools we get trained in everything from airplane etiquette to wine etiquette. My instructor took our class to a seven-course meal at a nice Italian restaurant and we learned things like how to hold our utensils, how to eat pasta, and what an amuse bouche is. (In case you’re wondering, that refers to a bite-sized appetizer the chef creates to begin the meal—literally, to “excite the mouth.”)

If someone’s not taught, they can’t know

I love the variety of my job. On any given day I may be preparing a training class, promoting an upcoming session, writing a blog post, delivering a presentation, or responding to a client inquiry. I work a lot—about 60-plus hours a week. My husband is my go-to guy when I’m faced with knowing how to respond to a tricky client situation (like one who isn’t paying me). He is also a reassuring voice when I’m feeling the loneliness of working from home.

The best part of my work is seeing people develop the confidence to approach new situations and know how to conduct themselves. A lot of what I teach is basic human relations. If someone, like a salesperson, is not feeling confident, it affects his delivery, which then affects his ability to close the deal. The thing is, if someone’s not taught, they can’t know.

Note: Arden’s business is Clise Etiquette.

thumb_mollyrosen2 Molly Rosen | November 05, 2010 | Entrepreneurs, Small business | 6

6 Responses to The Modern Manners Maven

  1. Vicki says:

    Is it just me, or do people seem ruder than ever before? I do think technology has made us somewhat more oblivious of what we’re saying, where we’re saying it and how loudly we’re saying it! To me, much of etiquette seems like a no-brainer — do unto others, etc., etc. But as Ms. Clise says, confidence is important; I think we’re more harried, confused (and self-absorbed!) than ever.

  2. molly says:

    I have been interested since reading this piece, to see how often thank you notes come up. For example, one of our editors who wrote 21 thank you notes as part of an interview process (lots of group interviews!) When she was offered the job, an SVP made a point of saying how much he appreciated the handwritten note rather than an email version of one (this is a young guy at an ad firm, BTW).

  3. Jim Tracy says:

    Think of the influence of TV ads like the one we saw this week where the mother dodges the truth about whether she used her daughter’s shirt. It was eventually washed and returned clean so the daughter wasn’t supposed to know ….for a detergent commercial. These are subtle influences and perhaps justification for less thoughtful and honest behavior. What are we teaching people with this kind of advertising? Certainly not being considerate and appropriate in behavior. Hooray for you if you can go and spread confidence for people to make good choices in many areas of life.
    Judy Tracy

  4. Sandy Jones-Kaminski says:

    As someone that was taught to write thank you notes at an early age, I’m still surprised by how many people don’t write them or don’t apply how wonderful it feels to receive one to their own lives. Who doesn’t like to receive a thoughtful note of thanks or even just good old fashion piece of snail mail for a change?! Do people that don’t send thank you notes think those of us that do are practicing a strange custom from a foreign land? ;-)

  5. CNA Training says:

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  6. Maureen says:

    This was a great story Arden! I was so surprised to learn there is a huge business in training classes for children…what a great idea. Whenever my children are not acting appropriately at dinner, I threaten them with the CLASS…works every time!!!

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