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Recent sexual harassment scandals have opened the floodgates in what is turning out to be a watershed moment in the industry and in corporate America as a whole. Our society is suffering a crisis of character across the board in which men and women are questioning their roles in the workplace. Everybody is on high alert and pointing fingers. Because we can now capture anything on our phones, there’s never been a greater need to learn the rules of behavior, both written and unwritten. What’s unique about Los Angeles and the entertainment industry in particular is that there isn’t a dividing line between work and play. People need to almost act as an ambassador of their company at all times.
These rules apply to everyone, from the CEO to the mailroom, both men and women.
Listening to Verbal and Nonverbal Cues
Verbal communication, the words that come out of our mouth, communicate up to 35 percent of our messaging. The choice of words, the tone in our voice and the word selection are important. Omit foul language and things like yelling in the workplace — that’s not allowed anymore and needs to be put in check. Our nonverbal cues make up the other 65 percent of our communication. Our facial expressions, arm gestures and stance communicate a message. When having a conversation, you need to tune in to micro expressions — those brief facial expressions that last a fraction of a second, which can conceal or repress an emotion. They can show fear, anger, sadness or contempt. You can watch them to determine whether a conversation is going down a very wrong road. Pursed lips, squinting of the eyes, and clenching or tightening of the face are all signs that someone is uncomfortable. We need to be mindful of reading other people’s body language as well as noticing our own. When we lean in, we’re interested, we are alert. When your arms are crossed, that is an immediate show of defense. Tuning in to the other person’s nonverbal language requires being present. Half the time these days, people are checked out.
Artful Greetings and Courteous Behavior
In this town, every relationship is based on connections. It’s our most valuable currency. Men and women are presumably equal in the workplace, so there is no such thing as chivalrous behavior. If we were talking about a dating workshop, absolutely, chivalrous behavior is a necessity. But in the workplace, because men and women are theoretically on an equal playing field, men do not have to hold the door open just to let a lady walk through. However, anyone who is walking through a door should hold it for the other person, male or female. That’s a sign of courtesy.
Hand-shaking is the ultimate greeting, and it is the most common gesture all over the world. In the workplace, anyone may extend their hand to shake and the person who extends first is always perceived to be the most confident and in control, as opposed to a social setting, where a man should always wait for a woman to extend her hand first. And then there’s the whole “hug it out” gesture from the days of Entourage. The actual deal is that everything happens above the waist. If you’re meeting somebody European who prefers to kiss, it is right cheek first, then the left, and really just an air kiss — your mouth should never touch their face. While I did say in the workplace women and men are on a level playing field, I would yield to the female’s discretion for anything more than a handshake. If a woman is leaning in for a hug or air kiss, you can certainly return.
Understanding Personal Space
We’ve all seen that episode of Seinfeld about the close talker. We need to understand that there is such a thing as a sphere of personal space, and that it is 18 inches around, basically the length of your arm. No one needs to invade that area unless given specific permission to do so. I believe that, going forward, people are also going to be hesitant about closing doors for private meetings. If you do have to have a confidential conversation, ask permission to close the door, and make sure everybody is on the same page and feels comfortable. You can always go into a conference room, which is a larger space, and offer to have someone in HR present, or you can make it known that you don’t need the door closed for privacy. Even things like giving co-workers rides can be problematic now. We have Uber nowadays, so we need to think twice before offering somebody a ride home. And it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable to decline, just say, “No, thank you, I have already called an Uber,” even if you haven’t. Manners are about two things: 1. How to feel comfortable in your own skin, and 2. How to put other people at ease. Just remember that in today’s climate, we can never presume.
In the digital age, we are all under surveillance constantly, so the same rules of etiquette apply electronically as they do in your face-to-face conversations. People need to realize that “privacy” no longer exists for anybody. Anything electronically communicated is permanent and can be traced back by your company. Mistakes that you made years ago are traceable and trackable. With Facebook friending between bosses and staffers, there are definitely pluses and minuses on either side, the plus being that you can gain some insight into your boss’ likes and dislikes in such areas as gift giving, and that perhaps you may be able to connect through them to other people and their professional network. But it’s much better to just stick with LinkedIn. Bosses, or those in authority positions, shouldn’t initiate the Facebook connection. Facebook is more social and LinkedIn is business. I’m a huge Twitter fan and it’s my preferred mode of communication. But everything you put on there should align with your corporate culture. If you want to post articles that have to do with work, something complimentary about another person, or something that is benign such as the holidays, great. Just keep it clean and respectful. Don’t put it all out there on social media like our president. We can no longer look to the very top for these kinds of lessons.
Small Talk and Compliments
There are two ways to engage in conversation. One is to ask a question and the other is to offer a compliment. We need to be careful of compliments that cross the line. Steer clear of compliments that speak to someone’s appearance because this can make some feel a little bit uncomfortable — even at holiday parties. There are plenty of topics to talk about without going into anything appearance-related. If you are offering a compliment, offer something that’s completely benign, like about somebody’s shoes or their pocket square. Try focusing on a broach or a scarf or an accessory that doesn’t speak to the entire physique or appearance. That is the safer comment.
Gifting and Drinking
With the holidays comes a good deal of socializing. When it comes to beverages, even if your company is providing free top-shelf liquor all night long, you want to nurse one drink. Keep adding ice, or switch to Pellegrino with lime. No one needs to know that there isn’t any vodka in your cup. Loose lips sink ships — you don’t want to say anything beyond-the-pale about your boss or the company. When inhibitions are down, we tend also to get loose with the opposite sex or those we may be interested in. We can’t afford to make those mistakes, especially now. When it comes to gifting this year, you may want to think about erring on the side of professionalism — certainly, no gag gifts of any kind. Think more generic gifts, like a gift card or a special coffee or tea. Think about that person’s daily routine and note if they need a new mug — that can be more appropriate for an office gift.
Having manners does not mean that you need to be a people pleaser. I say this because there may have been people who’ve fallen into being the recipients of harassment because they wanted to be well-mannered. It’s about respect, common-sense guidelines, basic civility and human decency. Etiquette gives us a solid framework, and manners save you from your worst self. I will now quote Ice Cube: “Check yourself before your wreck yourself.” How many times has your gut said, “Don’t do that, don’t say that” and then you did — and you fully regretted it. And now some people are regretting such things for the rest of their lives because their worlds have completely shattered.
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