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The Comfort Zone

Business etiquette tips for making work a little less awkward

by Kate Pavao

February 2016

The workplace is weird. At least according to Ross McCammon, a senior editor at Esquire and business etiquette columnist at Entrepreneur.

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“So much of what work is is awkwardness, and little mistakes that we have to get past, and confusion that we have to navigate, and awkward small talk that we have to make work,” he says.

To help make it easier for us, McCammon wrote the book Works Well with Others (Dutton, 2015), in which he spills the secrets to managing social media, business lunches, and work parties—and shares plenty of his own humiliating and humorous moments on the job. Here, he tells Profit what it takes to make the workplace a little more comfortable.

On millennials: I’m really skeptical about this idea that the current generation is somehow less equipped to manage the workplace than my generation was when we were first starting out, or my parents’ generation, or their parents’ generation. I just think we’re all sort of ill-equipped. In college, you don’t focus on how to interact with people. That’s just not something that the university system places a high value on.

You should allow people to see your mistakes as early as possible so you can turn those mistakes into good work.”

On small talk: The reason why small talk is so painful is because we just report on things. We say, ‘Oh, it’s a nice day.’ The key to conversation is to observe. ‘Oh, this sweater makes me think of the vacation I took.’ That’s an observation, and it’s personal. When you add some sort of take or insight to your comment, all of a sudden you’re kind of out of the small-talk zone and in a much more interesting area of conversation.

On ignorance: If somebody’s telling a story and assumes that you know a certain person—and you don’t—say, ‘I just don’t know who you’re talking about.’ It’s more efficient, and efficiency is a virtue in any business setting. I think efficiency is even good in interviews. Also, it takes a kind of fearlessness to say, ‘I don’t know who that is.’ It suggests authenticity, honesty, and curiosity, and those are all really important virtues.

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Percentage of employers who have rejected an applicant after reviewing their online presence (Source: CareerBuilder, 2015)


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On shutting up: Shutting up is really underrated. Even if you’re not somebody who talks a lot, you might find yourself talking too much when you’re nervous or overeager about an idea. You might just keep repitching over the course of a few minutes in a meeting. Let people participate a little bit. People will fill in the gaps for you, and sometimes it’s better for them to fill in their own information than for you to give up all of yours.

On making mistakes: If you’re making mistakes, you are probably in a job that is a good fit. Making mistakes suggests that you’re trying something new and that you’re taking the right kind of risks, because your mistakes are merely mistakes—they’re not failures. You can learn from mistakes and they’re easily overcome. You shouldn’t keep repeating the same mistakes, but a career is full of them. You should allow people to see your mistakes as early as possible so you can turn those mistakes into good work.

Photography by Shutterstock