Practice basic social etiquette for success

  • PublishedAugust 2, 2011

One of my friends looking for work related information once telephoned me from an unknown number and I answered with a simple “hello.” My friend, a stickler for good social etiquette, started the conversation by telling me that I should answer calls from unknown numbers with “hello, Edna speaking.” I gave him an excuse (which I now realise was valid) about it being lunchtime and that I was in the middle of lunch hence my careless response. However, what he said really got me thinking about some basic social etiquette that a lot of us seem not to know or often forget. Some social etiquette should be standard and instinctive by the time you are an adult. We also need to learn from the different situations we find ourselves in. Here are a few common social etiquette rules that everybody should know and adhere to.

Greetings and conversation

Always offer a handshake. When introduced to someone new, stand up to shake his or her hand. Ensure that your handshake is firm, and maintain eye contact while doing it, as this strengthens any communication that will follow and generates warmth. Loose handshakes suggest a lack of confidence.

Engage their eyes. During conversation, make an effort to engage people in genuinely good eye contact, not too little to show lack of interest or too much as to be suggestive or off-putting. Do not interrupt. Listen and wait for someone to finish his or her sentences before you speak. If you are in a conversation with someone and all you are doing is waiting to interrupt, you will probably do so before they finish putting their thoughts across, which is offensive and rude. Try to steer clear of hot button topics such as religion or politics with people you are not well acquainted with.

Appreciate a compliment. Saying “this old thing?” when someone compliments you on your lovely dress is not the right way to respond to a compliment. When someone compliments you, do not undermine yourself or reject the compliment. Thank them and move on. Also, do not feel the need to return the compliment. It is ok to not return a compliment if to you, nothing about the person is particularly striking.

Saying the ‘magic words’

These are simple but vital words that we may forget to say at one time or another. Say, “please” every time you make a request as it shows that you are polite, considerate, and acknowledge the burden, big or small, that you have placed on someone. In the same breath, always say “thank you” when a task, however small, has been completed for you. Also, remember to make a sincere apology every time you do something that may be offensive to another person. Saying “I’m sorry” will go a long way in maintaining good relationships with the people around you. Never get tired of saying these “magic words.”

Phone etiquette

Get the right number before calling to avoid bothering strangers. If you accidentally dial a wrong number, simply say “sorry, wrong number.” When speaking on the phone, remember that voice quality matters. Also, express yourself as concisely as possible. Introduce yourself right away when calling someone who may not recognise your voice or have your number.

When making business calls, do so well before the close of office hours. Do not make your call at 4.55pm if the office closes at 5.00pm Avoid calling before or after work hours. Generally, phone calls should not be made before seven in the morning, or after 9.30 or 10.00 in the evening. It is also necessary to avoid calling at meal times except when it is urgent or an emergency. When conversing with busy people over the phone, be as brief and to the point as possible.

If you are on a date or with company at dinner or just sharing a meal and expecting a call, inform them in advance. Do not let them wonder why you keep fumbling with your phone. Also, if you have to make or take a phone call, excuse yourself and head outside or to a secluded corner of the room.

Public transport etiquette

When waiting to board a matatu, and other forms of public transport, including lifts, let the people inside get off first before entering. Pushing and shoving in order to get in is very unflattering behaviour. Have your money ready in an easily accessible place. Try to carry money in small denominations so as to make it easier for the conductor. You can imagine how hard it is for them to find change for your Ksh1,000 note after deducting Ksh 30 for your fare. When alighting, ask to be excused. No one appreciates being pushed out of the way.


‘African timing’ seems to be something we have all accepted and are used to. Nonetheless, a good number of us are aware of how annoying it is to be made to wait for hours. Punctuality is very important as it shows that you value others’ time. It also shows personal responsibility. Be punctual for your engagements and leave on time. Do not overstay your welcome.

Good social etiquette is important. You may have heard the phrase ‘the first impression is always the last impression.’ You may never get an opportunity to prove yourself after a first impression, and a lot of people will judge you based on how they see you that first time. Make yours a good and lasting impression.

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