Date: February 5, 1990
Subject: Carol Fisher teaches business etiquette to a new generation of executives
“The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork,” once quipped Irish satirist Oscar Wilde. Many business executives often have a sinking feeling that social faux pas are hurting their careers. Letitia Baldrige, who was social secretary to Jacqueline Onassis during her White House years, helped many nervous business people with her bestseller Complete Guide to Executive Manners. Carol L. Fisher, a former Wall Street broker, a year ago opened Image Management, a Bernardsville firm, to help business people know socially right from wrong.
BUSINESS: What is image consulting all about?
Fisher: It is part of public relations and helps people improve their personal appearance and presentation. We help people pay attention to nonverbal communication as well as their verbal communications.
BUSINESS: But isn”t what is in your head more important than what you look like?
Fisher: First impressions are very important. People will form an opinion of you in the first five seconds without your saying even a word. On Wall Street I met a lot of brilliant people who did not pay attention to their appearance, and that had an effect on their success.
BUSINESS: What does the success of the Baldrige book say about American business today?
Fisher: I think that it says that Americans are finally beginning to realize that there is the right way to do things. It means that the carefree society that we had in the 1960s and 1970s is over. Older executives might know a lot of this because they were taught it at home. But the McDonald”s generation was never taught the basis of etiquette. I was taught at home, where I got a very firm foundation.
BUSINESS: Why is business etiquette important?
Fisher: The whole purpose of etiquette is to make your guests feel comfortable. Finger bowls at a dinner party, for example, are often things of terror for people. One of my favorite stories about them involves Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. One of her guests had no clue about what to do with the finger bowl, so he picked it up and drank it. Then Mrs. Roosevelt to make her guest feel comfortable picked up hers and drank it too. It”s good business to use good manners. You”ll be more productive if you put your client more at ease.
BUSINESS: What points of etiquette are most troubling for business people?
Fisher: Introductions first of all. They are very important, and a lot of people are uncomfortable with them. People have trouble remembering names, so that puts them on edge. Even if you don”t remember someone”s name, don”t skip an introduction. Then there is a pecking order in introductions. The junior executive is introduced to the senior, and the younger person is introduced to the older.
BUSINESS: Has dressing for business changed in recent years?
Fisher: It depends on the geographic location and the occupation. Wall Street is very conservative. Other fields like advertising or areas like the West Coast are very different. It all depends on the field and where you are working.
BUSINESS: What are the most common mistakes?
Fisher: For women, the wrong color. They may look great in hot pink, but that is not the appropriate color for a conservative office. Other problems for women are jewelry and hairstyles. Jewelry should be as simple as possible and no costume jewelry. The hairstyle should also be simple. For men it is much easier. Most of them instinctively know what is and is not acceptable. Men have most trouble in formal wear and in figuring out appropriate wear for informal or sporting events.
BUSINESS: You seem to be saying that dressing correctly is much tougher for a woman.
Fisher: That”s true. We were trained to look very feminine. When a woman enters the executive labor force, it is much tougher. And when you enter a bank, for example, you have to realize that you have to fit into a conservative environment.
BUSINESS: Lots of business is done over meals and at other social occasions.
Fisher: Yes, but many people are uncomfortable about it because they don”t have the rules under their belts. Therefore they don”t concentrate on the work and worry about which fork they should pick up. They don”t know for example when is the proper time to start discussing business.
BUSINESS: When is the proper time?
Fisher: It is after you place the order. If the client starts talking business before you order, that is okay. Then go with the flow.
BUSINESS: How is business entertaining in New York City different from business entertaining in Central New Jersey?
Fisher: It”s possible to dine in elegance in both places. I have found from personal experience that entertaining in New Jersey is easier and more relaxing for two reasons. First, transportation and traffic are less complicated. In addition, establishments in New Jersey close at reasonable hours for the most part. New York City, on the other hand, does not close, and if you have a client with a lot of energy, you may be in for a very long evening. One”s physical, emotional and financial resources are all tapped heavily when you do your entertaining in New York.
BUSINESS: How has business etiquette changed by the arrival of so many women in the executive suite?
Fisher: Many men are uncomfortable dealing with women in the workplace. They don”t know how to handle some basic things like whether letting them pay for the meal is appropriate. Women, of course, often do not know how to handle those situations either. Who holds the door? Who sits down first? The corporate kiss. Should you? Shouldn”t you?
BUSINESS: What”s the answer? Should you?
Fisher: Location and occupation have a lot to do with it. It may be all right in Hollywood, but in general, the corporate kiss is the kiss of death. You”ll never be wrong not to do it. And you can be dreadfully wrong if you do. Play it safe, and don”t do it.