One of my earliest memories is one when I was about five years old, having Sunday lunch with my sister and mother.
We were all dressed up for church, and afterward, my mom had taken us to a “white tablecloth” restaurant.
She was teaching us how to cut meat, holding the fork and knife properly, switching hands with the fork after cutting, and placing the knife on the side of the plate — a rather complicated series of movements for a child.
There must have been some other etiquette lessons thrown in at the time, because during the lunch, a woman eating at the restaurant approached my mom and said, “Your children are so well-mannered. You must be proud of them.”
I vividly remember my mom’s expression of pleasure and pride.
Our polite behavior made an impression, and the lunch left an indelible impression on me. People like politeness. Having good manners and social skills feels good and makes others respond positively.
I was fortunate to have parents who placed a high value on social skills and manners.
Of course, I was raised in the South — so good manners were reinforced simply by nature of being Southern. Even as a grown woman, I still find myself saying, “Yes ma’am” or “Yes sir” to people a few years my senior. Old habits die hard.
But it doesn’t matter where you grew up or how you were raised in relation to social graces. Having good social skills will give you an advantage in your personal and professional life.
Even if you never had any training or role models, it’s never too late to learn new habits and manners.
If you have a lack of social skills, here’s a list of 20 basic skills you need to master:
1. Greet someone properly.
When you greet someone new, or even an acquaintance or friend, look them in the eye, smile, and offer a firm handshake or hug (for someone you know well).
If you are seated when someone enters to greet you, stand up to say hello and offer them a seat.
2. Enter a room with mindfulness.
When you enter a room, be mindful of what’s happening when you enter. Don’t clomp in loudly or slam the door.
If you enter a meeting or group of people, come in quietly and wait for the conversation to end before speaking. If you arrive late, apologize for being late and interrupting.
Even when you enter your home, or move from one room to another, be aware of those sharing the space with you.
3. Excuse yourself thoughtfully.
When you need to excuse yourself from a conversation, a meeting, or the dinner table, wait until there’s a break in the conversation, and then say, “Please excuse me, I need to step away for a moment.” If you intend to return, add “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
When someone offers a compliment, receive it graciously by saying, “Thank you so much. How kind of you to say that.”
Don’t deflect the compliment, even if you don’t feel it’s true or you feel uncomfortable with compliments.
Rejecting or deflecting a compliment makes the giver feel bad and is ungracious.
5. Receive a criticism maturely.
When you receive a criticism, whether or not it’s constructive, don’t respond defensively.
Rather, take a deep breath if you need to and thank the person for letting you know.
If you feel the criticism is unwarranted and can’t thank them, then simply say something like, “I appreciate your sharing that, and I’ll take it into consideration.”
6. Have voice level awareness.
Have you ever been around someone who doesn’t seem to be aware of how loudly they’re speaking?
Or have you struggled with someone who speaks so quietly, you have to lean in to their personal space to hear them?
Learning to speak in a confident but appropriately modulated tone of voice is necessary for business, social, and public situations. Your family will appreciate it too.
7. Be a good guest.
When you’re a guest at a party, a restaurant, or someone’s home, show appropriate gestures of appreciation for their hospitality.
When you first arrive, say to the host, “Thank you so much for including me tonight. I’ve been looking forward to this.”
When you leave, say something like, “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed myself. Thank you so much for having me and for your hospitality.”
If you are a guest in someone’s home for a party or overnight, bring the host a small gift as a gesture of thanks. Always write a thank-you note after the event.
8. Make a proper introduction.
When you are introducing two people, speak first to the person you wish to honor or the senior person in the group.
For example, if you are introducing a friend to your boss, turn to your boss and say, “Mr. Smith, I’d like to introduce you to my friend John.”
Look at the person you are speaking to first, and as you’re making the introduction, turn your attention to the person you’re introducing.
9. Start a conversation comfortably.
After you make an introduction, help start a conversation by introducing a topic the two people have in common or bring up a situation or event that all of you can speak about.
10. Make a necessary interruption.
If two or more people are speaking, but you need to interrupt for something important, stand near the person you need to speak with and wait a moment or two for them to acknowledge you.
If they don’t, gently touch their shoulder or arm and say, “Please excuse the interruption, but I need to speak with you briefly.”
11. Make an apology sincerely.
If you have made a mistake or offended someone, as quickly as possible offer a sincere apology.
Try to do this in person, but if that’s not possible, then do it on the phone — but never by text or email.
Look the person in the eye, acknowledge your offense, apologize without excuses, and offer to make amends if necessary.
For example, “Mary, I should never have shared the personal information you told me. I was wrong, and I’m very sorry about it. I promise it won’t happen again, and I’ll make sure the information goes no further.”
12. Use proper cell phone etiquette.
When you’re in a meeting, eating with others, in a public event, or conversing with a friend, turn your cell phone off.
If you absolutely must keep it on for an emergency or urgent situation (your children, waiting for a very important call, etc.) then turn it on silent, and let those around you know that you’re sorry, but you must leave your phone on “because I need to make sure my kids get home safely” or “I’m waiting for the doctor to call back.”
When you are speaking on the phone in a public place (on a bus, at the airport waiting room, etc.), be aware that others around you don’t want to hear your loud conversation. Walk a distance away and speak softly. Turn down your ring tone.
13. Use basic table manners.
Put your napkin in your lap. Wait for everyone to be served before eating, and wait for the hostess or the one who prepared the meal to eat first.
Keep your elbows off the table. Take off your hat. Chew with your mouth closed. Eat slowly and quietly.
Ask for something to be passed rather than reaching across someone.
If you’re not sure how to use utensils properly, read this. Be sure to excuse yourself before leaving the table and to say thank you. Clear your own plate.
14. Learn email, social media etiquette.
When you put something in writing in an email or on social media, never write something you wouldn’t want your mother or your children to read.
Keep messages brief, and remember people can’t read your tone of voice in an email, so don’t use sarcasm or off-color comments.
Use proper grammar and punctuation, and read over your words before you hit send or post.
Don’t send out anything when you’re feeling angry — wait until you calm down.
15. Remember old-fashioned manners.
Always say “Please” and “Thank you.”
Whether you’re a man or woman, hold the door for someone approaching it the same time you are.
Offer your seat to someone older, someone pregnant, or someone with a disability, if there are no other seats available.
Men, many women still like it when you hold the door for them, open the car door, or walk on the outside when on the street.
Push your chair under the table after dining. Reply to invitations in a timely way.
Make sure your friend or your date gets inside the door before driving away. Show special respect to the elderly. Dress appropriately for the occasion.
16. Be polite to service people.
Nothing reveals bad manners more than being rude or dismissive with service people — like your waiter, doorman, grocery clerk, etc.
Treat the people who serve you with kindness and respect, and show appreciation for their efforts.
If their service or something they are serving you isn’t up to par, bring it to their attention calmly and without anger or sarcasm.
17. Share space harmoniously.
If you are sharing an office space or living space with someone, be mindful of their presence and sensibilities.
Remove your clutter from shared spaces. Clean up after yourself. Don’t monopolize one room, the only TV, or a shared bathroom.
Don’t invite people to your shared space without notifying the other person.
Be mindful of the other person’s sleep patterns, and don’t make noise if staying up later or getting up earlier than the other person.
Don’t borrow without asking. Don’t pry. Keep your voice down.
18. Have time awareness.
Consistent tardiness is rude, and it let’s other’s know you don’t care enough about their time to be punctual.
If you are running late, call or text those waiting for you to let them know.
It’s best to plan ahead for traffic or other possible delays. Leave early, even if you arrive early and must wait.
19. Be aware of your moods.
Be aware of your own moods before you join a gathering of people. Don’t infect the group with your anger or frustration about something.
Never give the silent treatment, pout, sulk or intentionally try to draw attention to your bad mood.
If you are feeling so bad that you can’t control your emotions, then excuse yourself from the group and leave.
Put the group dynamic ahead of your feelings.
20. Employ “The Golden Rule.”
Treat other people the way you want to be treated — plain and simple.
Good social skills and manners reflect good character, self-respect, and respect for others. If you don’t have these skills, take the time to learn them.
Not only will you feel better about yourself, more confident and self-assured, but also you’ll see a change in the way others respond to you.
Solid social skills can decide who gets the job, who gets the promotion, who gets the date, and who gets the return invitation.
You can never go wrong with having these skills, but you can certainly miss a lot of opportunities if you don’t!