by Letitia Baldrige, with Lafe Low

Social Skills: How to Behave Yourself in Public

Jan 01, 20026 mins

You may know your business when it comes to technology, but are you sure you know what’s appropriate dress for the office these days? Whether it’s proper to encourage your dinner guests to order a first course? What to do when you’ve forgotten the name of someone whose name you should certainly not have forgotten?

Social situations can be fraught with peril, and even people with the finest manners can use a refresher from time to time. Let’s begin with your look.


One simply can’t ignore one’s dress and appearance. Contrary to popular opinion, the business dress code is becoming increasingly strict as the economy continues to struggle. CIOs have to look crisp and professional.

One must always dress according to one’s age, position and body type. For a woman, her figure should determine what she wears. If your arms, for example, are not all they should be, don’t wear sleeveless dresses. Women beyond cheerleader age should not wear skirts above the knee. Midriffs should not be exposed no matter how good one’s figure. Modesty is always in fashion.

Men have it a bit easier because they’re just choosing between different suits and ties. Still, men should look around at their peers and clients, and then try to dress better than everyone else. If you’re uncertain of your own taste, pick someone in your company who is a really sharp dresser. Tell him, “Let me take you to lunch at a nice restaurant, then come with me to Saks and help me pick out some clothes.” Clothing is expensive. It’s best to have just a few high-quality pieces.

For casual days, there are certain acceptable ways to dress down. For men, a blue blazer with an open-necked blue, white or pink oxford cloth shirt and gray or tan gabardine slacks is a very nice casual look. A red or blue tie should be close by so that one can put it on quickly in case an important client or the CEO drops by. Those young gentlemen in the dotcom business wearing stained khakis and polo shirts with corporate logos are so 1999.

Some people believe they can wear their running shoes to the office. They are wrong. Wear a nice pair of Loafers and save the running shoes for running. Keep your sandals in the closet until the weekend as well. Feet are not attractive, and wearing sandals with socks is for tourists, not businesspeople.


When it’s time for dinner at a restaurant with colleagues and clients, think ahead about who will sit next to whom. Sadly, that’s rarely done in business today. The host of the dinner should tell everyone where to sit. That relieves the guests of having to make awkward decisions. And when told to sit, everyone should do just that. Anyone who gets up and goes table-hopping shows tremendous rudeness to others.

Before ordering, the host should instruct the waiter to take everyone’s order first and his last. If the host urges everyone to take a first course by saying something like, “The shrimp cocktail is fabulous,” that gives the guests the signal that it’s appropriate to do so. If no one is having a first course except one person, that one person should withdraw her order. The same applies to dessert. It’s rude and awkward and leaves the others around the table twiddling their thumbs while one person eats his solitary cr¿me bržlŽe. And when choosing an entrŽe, don’t instantly order the Lobster Thermidor. Aim for the median on the price scale.

Of course, there are many other points to keep in mind during a dinner. Use your napkin regularly so that you don’t smear grease all over your water glass. If you spill a bit of water on the table, mop it up. If you spill a bit of wine on a dining companion, it’s proper to offer to pay the dry-cleaning bill. If you feel something stuck in your teeth, excuse yourself and go to the rest room. I once saw a woman pull out a nail file to dislodge something from her teeth. I had to wonder what forest she had crawled out from.

Don’t take too big a bite, but if you do, just keep chewing and get it down. Of course, that’s the moment when someone will turn and ask you a question. In that event, it’s that person’s responsibility to apologize and redirect the question elsewhere.

Gentlemen do not remove their jackets while dining, unless the host does so first. And don’t offer or ask to share entrŽes. It destroys the grace of the meal. People should enjoy one another’s company, enjoy their own food and enjoy the fact that everyone has beautiful manners.

“And You Are…?”

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve forgotten someone’s name we really ought to know. The next time it happens, just admit it. Say something like, “I am so forgetful these days, I can’t remember my mother’s name. Help me out.” Often the other person will laugh and offer his name gladly.

If you have any indication that someone is struggling with your name, it’s up to you to offer to help. I once introduced a CEO and his wife to several couples, but I used his ex-wife’s first name. They were so appalled that they didn’t stop me. The first one was my fault, but he was to blame for the second, third and fourth misintroductions.

Don’t be the person who cuts others out of a group conversation, ignores a new member of the group or speaks over someone. Don’t be remembered as the one who arrives too late or stays too late. Acting with proper manners is really just a question of being aware of what is going on around you and reacting appropriately.