Mind Your Manners

Meeting Planning

The Golden Rule is pretty simple: Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you. As a child, the rules to live by are also fairly simple: Listen to your parents…no matter what. But as you grow up, many of the rules that you are “supposed” to follow stop being so black and white, and tend to fall somewhere in a gray area. Of course, there are the general rules of common courtesy and proper etiquette that everyone knows—such as holding doors open for others, sending thank-you notes and being on time. Often, however, people don’t follow these niceties, which leads to the question that’s on everyone’s mind: What’s appropriate, and what’s not?

Just as grown-up rules aren’t as easy to follow as The Golden Rule, the meetings industry doesn’t have a rule book to hand out for trade shows and business events (although we all know a few people who could use a few copies of that nonexistent book). Throw into the mix the onslaught of new models of communication—Facebook walls, retweets, text messages—and there’s a whole new ballgame, with a whole new set of rules (the so-called technology-driven “netiquette”).  

To help you make the very best impression, no matter where you are, we’ve asked two etiquette experts to enlighten us about the most important do’s and don’ts that every meeting planner, attendee and hospitality professional should not only know, but also abide by. (Guy at the trade show who wipes his nose with his hand and reaches out to shake your hand immediately after, we are talking to you!)


“We are all judged by our appearance and behavior. A customer who feels comfortable with you is likely to buy your company’s product or services, while a customer who feels uncomfortable will not want to [buy from you]. More business deals are lost to faux pas than you may realize,” says Lisa Mirza Grotts, founder of The AML Group, Etiquette and Protocol Consultants in San Francisco. (Grotts is also the former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco, as well as the author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette.)

First impressions are important because, according to several psychology studies, people form 90% of their opinion of another person in the first 90 seconds of meeting them (some studies say that happens in as little as 5–7 seconds). How’s that for pressure? Which brings us to another point: A handshake is often the first contact you have with another person, making it first on the scale of importance. “In our business culture, a man or woman may initiate the handshake, although it is best to wait for a senior executive to offer,” says Connie Rhodebeck, an eight-year certified etiquette consultant based in Birmingham, Ala. “Men and women should stand up, make eye contact, smile and give a firm handshake. Avoid too firm a handshake, displaying dominance and insecurity, or too limp, showing weakness and lack of confidence,” she says.

Here are a few more tips to consider.


  • Always stand for introductions and extend a hand.
  • Ask for a person’s name if you’ve forgotten it. “It’s better to ask for his or her name than to let that person stand in a group and be ignored,” Rhodebeck says. “Do not get rattled if you forget someone’s name. It happens to everyone. It is best to deal with it openly, however, claiming ‘brain freeze,’ or letting the person know that you remember them—mutual friend, business, event where you met—but have just forgotten their name.”
  • Introduce people in order of their importance. In business introductions, Grotts advises that gender is not a consideration anymore; however, “you should always say the most important person’s name first, and then introduce the others.”
  • Use titles, salutations (Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.) and last names when introducing people to higher-ups, letting the senior person decide whether or not to offer their first name, Rhodebeck says.


  • Say hello only to those nearest you if you are in a large group. It’s also not necessary to work the entire room like a politician, Grotts says.
  • Say things like, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Using kind words will help convey that you are a person who’s likeable and easy to work with.
  • Never replace a handshake with a hug upon introduction—at least not anywhere in the U.S., Grotts advises.  

Business Card Etiquette and The Cultural Element

Exchanging business cards is a necessary ritual in our industry, and it’s almost as important as the way you shake hands (which, by the way, you should always do).


  • Always put business cards handed to you in your left pocket. “We shake with our right hands, so the right side would be where we keep our own cards. This is so we don’t give out other people’s cards,” says.  
  • Use discretion when handing out your business card. “Remember this golden rule: A business card is a gift you leave behind, so be picky about who [you present it to] and how you present it,” she says.
  • Keep clean, unbent cards in a safe place, and always take extra cards with you to evening social events. Rhodebeck also recommends using a card case, so the edges do not get frayed.
  • Take a moment to look at a business card when you receive it. “Make a positive comment or ask a question about the business,” she says.  
  • Make a note about the person on the back to help remember him or her in the future, Rhodebeck says. “Of course, be sure it’s a flattering comment, in case any one else should see it.”


  • Put a business card directly into your pocket after it’s handed to you. Grotts says that it’s important to study the card and title.
  • Assume you know how to present a business card when meeting with someone from another country. “In Japan, the business card is always presented face out with two hands. It is a sign of respect for the most important person of the delegation, on down, to follow this rule,” she says.
  • Cross out information on your business card and write in corrections. “If anything needs to be updated, have the cards reprinted,” Rhodebeck says.


Not just for wedding parties anymore, the buffet line is a fact of life at most meetings and large social functions, so it’s essential to know just how many shrimp you can take away with you. (Note: If you are the person who always plants themselves at the cocktail shrimp display, that is 100% unacceptable.) 


  • Eat first, then mingle. This will cut down on the possibility of spilling food on your clothes.
  • Take small portions. “You can always go back for seconds,” Grotts says.
  • Keep your drink in your left hand, if possible. This way you don’t have to transfer your drink when shaking hands, and you won’t shock the other person with a cold hand.


  • Cut in line, even if someone is taking a long time to decide what to put on their plate.  
  • Load up your plate. “It’s best not to, for many reasons,” Grotts says. Most importantly, “You may spill on yourself or the table or the floor. Plus, again, you can always go back for seconds.”

Sit-Down Meals

Everyone has their own way to approach a dinner table. More often than not, we save ourselves from embarrassment by peeking at our peers to ensure we are making the right move. At a recent business meal, we overheard a helpful hint from a table neighbor to help remember which bread plate is yours: “Just remember B.M.W.,” said Hal Davis of the Aruba Tourism Board. “Bread. Meal. Water.” Now that we’ve got that straight, below are more tips to keep your dining experience stress, and mess, free. 


  • Wait until everyone is seated and served to begin eating, or until your host gives the okay.
  • Put your napkin on your lap immediately when you sit down at the table.
  • Restrain yourself. “The rule is to take a small portion of everything,” Grotts says.
  • Leave your napkin on your chair if you leave the table in between courses.
  • Remember that salt and pepper travel together, even if your neighbor asks for one or the other.


  • Place items on the table that are not part of the meal, such as keys, purses and cell phones.
  • Rest your elbows on the table. The only exception to this is when there is no food in front of you, or it’s between courses.
  • Reach across the table for anything. Instead, ask for it to be passed.
  • Push your plate away no matter how anxious you might be. Wait until it is cleared by a waiter.
  • Ever request seconds, but accept them graciously if offered.

But What If…

  • You drop a utensil on the floor. Don’t pick it up and use it; instead, ask for another.
  • You spill something on somebody. Ask the waiter for help, as the spill might be in a “compromising” location, Grotts says.
  • You have to sneeze. Turn your head to sneeze, but don’t use your napkin. If sneezing persists, excuse yourself to the restroom.
  • You have to use the restroom. Excuse yourself without telling everyone where you’re going.
  • You want french fries but they’re not on the table. Never ask for foods that are not offered by your host.
  • You finish dinner early. Wait patiently for others to finish before leaving the table.
  • You need to make a phone call. It’s okay, but  remember not to leave the table for more than a few minutes.

And then there’s seating rules, which most of us don’t even know about. “In my experience, one of the biggest no-no’s is a lack of respect for seniority in regard to seatsmanship,” Rhodebeck says. “That is, those with less seniority just going in and sitting down at the conference table with no regard for where their superiors will be sitting. This can make a negative first impression before the meeting even gets started.” What you should do is wait for the senior staff and/or hosts to be seated, or to indicate where you should sit. If that proves to be awkward, take the least desirable seat, she says. “It is always best to be invited to move forward.”

But the world of mobile communication has taken these basics, like where to sit, and placed them on the back burner. Although cell phones and smart phones are a way of life—and arguments persist as to whether or not our constant accessibility is actually helpful—there are some general no-no’s when it comes to your PDA. There are so many, in fact, that experts and writers on the subject have even come up with a new term for it, “textiquette.”

Smart Phones and PDAs

As great as it is to hear about the general session speaker’s Facebook page and immediately log on to become his or her friend, smart phones have their downsides. The main problem is that we are addicted to constant information—it’s not called a CrackBerry for nothing—and, therefore, we lose interest much quicker than ever before. “The technology of communication can lead to self-centeredness and distractedness, causing us to disregard the comfort and company of those around us,” Rhodebeck says.  

Although you may not be standing up and blatantly walking out of a meeting, having a presenter see only the top of your head is just as rude. To spare yourself from becoming “that attendee,” be sure to read these rules for the ever-evolving relationship between you and your mobile best friend.


  • Make sure the ringer and vibrator are off, Grotts says. There’s nothing more annoying then a vibrating table!
  • Remember that silence is golden—and that includes in a meeting. “If you can’t turn off your phone for a meeting, we’re all in trouble,” Grotts says. “It’s rude, and it disturbs others.”
  • Sit up straight and keep your eyes to the front. “We should watch our posture, as our body language conveys our interest and respect. Be mindful of any habits that may annoy others, or make us appear disinterested, such as playing with a pen, picking at our clothing or nails, checking e-mails on our phone or chewing gum,” Rhodebeck says.


  • Talk on your phone during a meeting. Even if you forgot to turn off your ringer, you must never answer your phone in the middle of one.
  • Keep your phone on the table. The one exception to this is if you are using it as a calendar. People understand that you need to check dates, etc.
  • Text during a meeting, or when in the company of others, Rhodebeck says. “It is the equivalent of whispering. It’s exclusive and very rude.” If you are expecting a message that you cannot miss, explain it to the facilitator before the meeting begins, have your phone muted and sit as close to the door as possible, in case you need to excuse yourself, she says.


Although not a complete list of all the rules you need to follow in the business world, these etiquette do’s and don’ts will help you get a little farther down the path to success. Just remember, a first impression is a lasting one, so be sure to mind your manners.