I’m not Emily Post, but I do know a thing or two about etiquette!

By Kathleen D. Pagana | 09/10/2015

The 10 questions I am asked most often.


Not only do I know a thing or two about etiquette, I also know etiquette is important for nurses and doesn’t just apply to formal situations. Etiquette should guide the behavior of nurses when interacting with colleagues and patients. Of course, it is also a bonus in social settings. I believe etiquette is the missing link between education and the work setting.
Kathleen D. PaganaBelow, I answer 10 questions about the benefits of etiquette for nurses. But, before doing that, let me answer another question that may be on your mind.
How is it that a nurse with a background in teaching, clinical practice, military service, administration, writing, and speaking now focuses on etiquette? Here is a quick answer. It was 2003, and I was a tenured, full professor of nursing in a BSN program. The college decided to phase out nursing and limit its programs to liberal arts. After considering my options, I chose to pursue professional speaking.
I learned the speaking business while working for a communications company and teaching presentation skills. When a co-worker who taught business etiquette took maternity leave, I was asked to learn the etiquette content and fill in. Almost immediately, business etiquette resonated with me, and I could see how the nursing profession would also benefit from this information. Now, after writing books and articles and speaking internationally about etiquette, I am delighted to share career-enhancing information on the subject with my nurse colleagues. Here are the 10 questions I am asked most often.
1. Why is etiquette important for nurses?
Etiquette is about relationships. Nursing is a career characterized by relationships with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings. By using the guiding principles of kindness, consideration, and common sense, etiquette can help you initiate new relationships and enhance established ones. It can guide you in unfamiliar situations and help you know what to expect from others.
Let’s take a sport analogy. If you don’t know how to play volleyball, would anyone want you to be part of his or her team in a competitive league? Probably not. However, if you know the rules and how to play, you could be an asset to any team. Knowledge of professional etiquette can make you a welcome addition—and help you survive—in the toughest sport of all, a business world that is often unforgiving and highly critical.
2. How does etiquette help you when networking?
Relationships you form through networking benefit you and those with whom you network by developing your lives and careers. Networking connects you with new colleagues, new opportunities, new information, and different practice settings. Networking can happen anywhere—on the train, in the gym, or at an art show. You might be chatting with someone who knows a key person who can help you obtain your next position.
Pagana_article1_embed_SFWYou can expand your network in many ways—by joining professional organizations, attending meetings, using social media, serving on a committee, or volunteering in your community. Get more out of networking by being a resource for others, bringing your business cards, making new contacts, and scheduling time for follow-up.
Knowledge of etiquette will help you start and exit conversations, know where to place your nametag, improve your listening, and remember names. Always be ready to introduce yourself. Don’t approach someone and say, “Do you remember me?” Instead, be thoughtful, extend your hand for a handshake, and introduce yourself.
3. Is there a proper way to introduce people?
Yes, there is. There is a pecking order to introductions. The person of honor is mentioned first, and the other person is then introduced to him or her. The person of honor is the higher-ranking person in the organization. For example, suppose you are introducing a new graduate to the vice president of nursing. The VP is mentioned first, and the new graduate is presented or introduced to him or her. Here is an example: “Margaret, I would like to present Matthew Smith. Matt is a recent graduate of Villanova University. Margaret Williams has been our vice president for the past five years.”
4. Do people really judge you by your handshake?
Yes. Unfortunately, many nurses do not give a positive impression when shaking hands. I will never forget speaking with a Navy nurse at a conference when a young man introduced himself and said he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. As he walked away, she turned to me and said, “Not with that handshake.”
You want to present a confident, firm handshake. Those few seconds you shake hands can weaken or empower a relationship. Stand up, make eye contact, and smile. Be considerate of personal-space issues. If someone ignores your attempt to shake hands, simply drop your hand to your side, as cultural preferences, physical limitations, and other sensitivities may account for a person’s unwillingness to shake hands.
5. What messages are you sending by your clothing?
People unconsciously judge your background, level of education, and personality based on your clothes. Sloppy or inappropriate attire can imply that you do not respect yourself, do not place value on appearance, or do not care that your appearance affects the organization’s image.
Dress has a bigger impact in clinical settings than many nurses realize. The way you dress either supports or detracts from your professional image. It sends a message about how you see yourself and how you want to be perceived by others. Most nurses agree they would like to be viewed as professional, intelligent, and competent, but they need to ask themselves if their appearance supports that image.
If you are looking to advance your career, dress like the people on the next level up. Watch how clinicians, leaders, or managers in higher positions dress, and model your attire to match theirs. For example, a clinical educator may have a different professional look than a staff nurse.
6. How can I send a professional impression with my email?
Although email and other forms of communication technology are convenient and efficient, they can also be annoying, intrusive, and rude. Improper email practices can be costly to careers. If you want to present yourself in a courteous and professional manner, use proper etiquette with all forms of communication.
Email is now used more than any other type of communication in the workplace. Here are ways to avoid the most common problems:
  • Make the subject line specific. This helps the reader prioritize, file, and easily retrieve messages.
  • Include a greeting and a close. These social conventions make your communication more polite and less impersonal.
  • Avoid overuse of the “reply all” option. Only include in your reply those who are absolutely necessary.
  • Confirm receipt of emails that contain important information.
  • Include a signature block with your name, address, phone number, fax number, and email address.
7. How can etiquette help in a competitive job interview?
Knowing how to handle yourself before, during, and after an interview can help minimize anxiety and maximize your level of confidence. Preparing for the interview by finding out as much as possible about the organization and position beforehand is essential.
Knowing basic interview dos and don’ts, anticipating commonly asked questions and having effective responses, and having a follow-up strategy will help you appear competitive and polished. In addition, basic business-etiquette skills in handshaking, networking, making small talk, listening, making eye contact, having good posture, and dressing professionally will help you present a positive, confident, upbeat, and mature attitude throughout the interview process.
8. How does dining etiquette help a nurse professionally?
Many job interviews, business meetings, and award ceremonies involve food. If you don’t know which dinner roll or water glass belongs to you, you could feel flustered or uncomfortable. My favorite tip to identity your dinner roll and water glass is to think of the BMW automobile, but, in this case, BMW stands for Bread, Meal, and Water. Your bread plate is to the left of your meal plate, your meal is in the center, and your water glass is to the right.
9. How does your online persona impact your career aspirations?
Prospective employers often search the Web for information about you and may locate your website, blog, or social networking profile (LinkedIn or Facebook, for example). Make sure your information presents a professional and positive impression. You should be able to substantiate anything you post online about degrees, professional accomplishments, awards, military service, job titles, and so on. Make sure nothing is there (words, pictures, or videos) that could embarrass you or your potential employer.
10. Are there some basic tips for etiquette at meetings?
Meetings provide opportunities to distribute information, strengthen team building, support business relationships, and display leadership potential. In addition, they enable members to evaluate each other. Basic etiquette includes the following: being punctual, introducing yourself to others, bringing necessary materials, being prepared to discuss items on the agenda, and demonstrating professionalism through behavior and body language
I’m not Emily Post, but I am one of her biggest fans. We can benefit every day in clinical, business, and social settings by using the guiding principles of etiquette to come across as polished, confident, and professional. RNL
Kathleen D. Pagana, PhD, RN, is a professor emeritus, professional speaker, and author of The Nurse’s Etiquette Advantage: How Professional Etiquette Can Advance Your Nursing Career, now available in a completely revised second edition.
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