Social graces the way to success

Published Aug 2, 2013


Johannesburg - Elbows off the dining table, and make that your cellphone too, please. Arrive no later than 15 minutes after the start of the function, and whatever you do, don’t drink too much and be the last to leave. These are a few of the social graces you will learn at Joburg’s new School of Etiquette, which opened in May.

“South Africa is part of the global village and success in business requires a good handle on social and corporate etiquette, at home or when travelling. We saw a huge gap in the market to empower people in social skills, so they can reach their potential,” says Sharon Carey, who founded the school with her daughter Courtenay.

While good table manners and social habits are important, at the heart of etiquette is confident, easy communication, and this makes up a large part of what the Carey mother-and-daughter team offers in their workshops, held either at their headquarters at Le Chatelat guest house (owned by Sharon) in Sandhurst, or at corporates contracting their services.

“There’s a misconception that etiquette is about good manners and how to eat correctly,” says Courtenay. “Actually, interaction is the most important lesson in etiquette, the ability to create a comfortable conversation so you can reflect yourself or your company in the best possible light.

“Research shows that 85 percent of job success depends on social engineering. And you are not born with that ability, you learn it,” says Courtenay, who attended the Protocol School of Washington to qualify as an international etiquette consultant and completed a course at the New York School of Etiquette in Social Make-over and Personal Success.

So what are the rules of engagement?

Social intelligence is based on respect for others, so active listening, and “matching” your behaviour with the situation you are in, is key, says Courtenay. “Behave in a way that accommodates the other person.

“There’s a tendency for people to see business interactions as just a means to an end. Listen to the person’s name when you are introduced. Make eye contact. A little light-hearted chit-chat at the beginning of the conversation is essential to making a person feel at ease, and gives you valuable insight into the personality you’re engaging with,” advises Courtenay.

A strong focus of the School of Etiquette is on women, who despite their advances in the workplace, can be stricken by shyness or anxiety in social situations with colleagues.

One rule of thumb, says Sharon, is rather than wait for a man to shake your hand, offer it to him first. “Shake hands web to web, and strongly, making plenty of eye contact,” she says.

It may also help to know that you’re not alone in feeling anxious – “75 percent of people have social anxiety”, says Courtenay.

One of the keys to overcoming it is to inform yourself of the news of the day – the latest gold price, the day’s political news, what’s happening in the cricket. “Have a few facts at your fingertips about three or four subjects that may come up in conversation. People really appreciate that,” suggests Sharon.

One of the biggest faux pas is drinking too much and leaving late, a common but deadly occurrence. “Many deals have been lost, and careers ruined due to over-drinking and saying things that shouldn’t have been said,” says Sharon.

A cue to leaving a dinner function is when the host suggests coffee, although common sense should prevail. “Read the situation. If the host is yawning, it’s time to go. It’s also a good idea for hosts to include a cut-off time on the invitation, which is common in the US,” says Sharon.

And don’t apply lipstick at the dinner table. “No bodily function should be performed at the table,” says Courtenay, “and keep your handbag, keys and cellphone off the table.”

One of the most common oversights is leaving your knife and fork in a position that indicates you are still busy when in fact you are finished. “Rest your cutlery together when you are finished, so the service staff know to remove your plate,” says Sharon.

When it comes to being hosted to a dinner out on the town, let the host set the tone as to the budget allowance, says Courtenay. “Ask the host what he or she suggests from the menu. If it’s fish rather than lobster, or a moderately priced wine as opposed to a pricey one, then you have a good indication about the price bracket. This is also good advice for when you’re on a date,” she says.

For hosts and guests in the know, the position of people seated determines their hierarchy of importance. “The guest of honour is seated to the right, and those following in importance are seated to the right of him or her. Also, it’s good to know that the guest of honour gets served food first after the host,” says Sharon. As to when it’s time to start eating, watch for the host and guest of honour to lift their knives and forks.

The dining table aside, another fertile ground for errors of etiquette is online or on the phone.

One of the most common irritants in South Africa is a telephone greeting that begins “Hullo, how are you?”.

“You should always introduce yourself first. But aside from that, a better greeting would be ‘Hullo, my name is… am I speaking to…?’, rather than asking a stranger how they are,” says Sharon.

In sending an email, the rule of thumb is no capital letters (which is equivalent to shouting), no grammatical errors (use a spellcheck) and never use sarcasm or an emotional tone.

“Before you react to an email that upsets you, take a break. Be calm and logical in the reply, and try to remain objective. Also, always greet and sign off properly in an email, and stay away from emoticons and exclamation marks. These are not appropriate to a corporate environment,” says Courtenay.

Social etiquette paves the way for your own personality to shine through, and for those you engage with to shine too, says Courtenay.

“Manners are not a luxury. They’re about being self-aware, and sensitive and respectful of others. Etiquette is a necessity to achieving success in today’s world. Eighty-five percent of getting and keeping a job comes from our soft skills, while 15 percent is attributed to our technical skills and intellect.”

Cheers to that. We all need doors to open for us now and then. - The Star

* Workshops and services offered include eight corporate sessions, three social sessions and two dining sessions (13 in total). For more information, e-mail [email protected] or phone 083 562 8226. Visit


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