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Etiquette At Work

There is often more than one polite answer

One scenario I present at most of my seminars invariably elicits a lot of discussion.

Imagine you have invited a client to a business meal at a restaurant that has a no-cellphones policy. During the meal your client answers his phone when it rings and launches into a conversation. People at nearby tables start looking your way. What do you do?

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This situation is awkward to say the least. Last week, one participant at my seminar responded: “Get his attention. Tell him. Point at his phone and make a motion with your hand across your neck.” Another person chimed in: “Do nothing. He’s a client.” Yet another offered, “Go get a waitperson or maitre d’ to deal with the client while you’re in the restroom.”

It quickly becomes apparent that some people would be comfortable saying something directly to the client. “John, no cellphones here. Would you please step out to the lobby to take that call?” At another seminar, a person offered a slightly less intrusive solution: quickly jot down a message like “No cellphones” and slip it over to the client.

But for every person willing to say something to a client, there’s another who will express trepidation at saying anything at all.

That leaves us with two possibilities: Doing nothing or ask someone at the restaurant to intervene. Doing nothing is fraught with complications. The situation escalates the longer the client is on the phone. Ultimately, doing nothing really doesn’t work.

So, for the person who can’t directly ask the client to take the call in the lobby, the alternative of leaving for the restroom and asking a waitperson or maitre d’ to enforce the rule becomes an option. Of course, it’s important to be discreet so the client doesn’t see you making the request.

Etiquette isn’t always about just one correct answer. While the solution is important, the real point I make is that for every situation, people have to decide for themselves just what they can do and then act accordingly, in the best manner possible, both to resolve the issue and to build or maintain the relationship at the same time.

By the way, the best solution is not to get into the situation in the first place. When arriving at the restaurant, the host should take his phone out, turn it off, and let the others in his group know the restaurant has a no-cellphones policy. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

E-mail questions about business etiquette to
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