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Esther Cepeda Interviews Anna Post on Etiquette for the 21st Century

Story by Esther J. Cepeda of 600 Words and Pregunta Del Dia

Sept. 19, 2008 – Look around the office — the work landscape has changed dramatically in the last ten years.

You’ve got Mary yakking with Laqueesha about what was on Oprah yesterday and Mario discussing Sunday’s Bears game with John, while Maalik, Esperanza and Bob plan next week’s “fall celebration.” It’s like a Benetton ad, but with less spectacular clothes.

With that in mind, I sat down for a chat with Anna Post, great-great- granddaughter of Emily Post, who was in town last week talking up her new partnership with Hyatt Place to launch The Etiquette Effect, an advice website that bills itself as “the online resource for contemporary etiquette insights.”

On it, Post answers questions ranging from to how to say “no” more gracefully, to how to act when traveling with your boss, to how to give criticism graciously.

I took Anna’s expertise for a spin on topics most people wouldn’t usually dare bring up.

Q. Anna, the office isn’t what it used to be — ethnic minorities now make up more than half the population in 302 of the U.S.’ 3,141 counties. The most recent Census figures say Cook County had the biggest population shift, losing 215,535 whites between 2000 and 2007. How can employees and managers of diverse backgrounds better understand and interact with each other?

A. I teach a personal philosophy of etiquette that goes beyond country of origin and age, and are just good skills to take between your job and your personal life. It’s based on the principles of consideration, respect and honesty. Those go beyond manners and customs; they’re timeless and cross borders.

Q. OK, that sounds good but, for instance, we’re living and working during a time when history is being made by a black presidential candidate who’s being portrayed as a Muslim, an elderly presidential candidate, and a female vice presidential candidate. So the formerly taboo workplace subjects of race, religion, gender and age are water cooler fodder du jour. How to deal?

A. Do your homework. For instance, if you know your boss is into politics and will ask you what you think, be prepared with facts. But the biggest thing I tell people is, “Don’t make assumptions!” Don’t presume everyone in the room agrees with your basic assumptions on race or gender, etc., or agrees with what you might consider generally understood stereotypes.

Q. What if you’re Hispanic and one of your white employees drops little Spanish phrases when he/she speaks to you and a) it drives you crazy and b) you think it’s some sort of sucking-up and c) you just want it to stop but don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings?

A. Wow. I think that requires a conversation! If it was a peer you could have their manager talk to him/her, but as the boss you have to have that talk directly. There are some things we all have to swallow, but always keep in mind your respect for yourself. Always be true to yourself.

That said, some soft language like, “I want to talk to you about a communication issue” — it’s always about the issue, not the person — “I need to bring this up because it’s distracting me from our work…” Also remember to say something like, “You need to fully believe I know you’re not trying to intentionally make me uncomfortable…”

Q. Ok, how about this one: Let’s say I’m the only Hispanic at a company and it’s “Holiday Party” time and I’m asked to bring the guacamole. Again. I love guacamole and all, it’s cool…but enough with the guacamole, already! I know how to roll sushi and layer Baklava, ya know.

A. Just remember that it’s coming from a good place and in that situation try something like, “I’m going to give so and so my recipe for the guacamole this time, I’m going to bring the vanilla pudding this year.”

Q. A lot more people in our offices are observing Ramadan. How does a high-powered executive who is fasting maneuver the omnipresent lunch and dinner meetings? Or, alternately for instance, what if you’re vegetarian or have severe food allergies?

A. First, don’t think you have to apologize for being true to yourself — always be true to yourself and never go against your beliefs. Don’t ever try to hide your differences. That said, there are a couple of things you can do depending on your comfort level:

1) Call the person scheduling the meeting in advance and just let them know what’s going on. Don’t insist the meeting be relocated and don’t be difficult if they offer to relocate, just be open to what’s going to make everyone comfortable.

2) You might get the restaurant information to make sure they have food you can eat, or to ask them not to lay out a table setting, or to make sure your food is prepared away from allergy triggers.

3) Make sure you remind wait staff when you arrive. Again, don’t apologize, just be direct, “Thank you, I’m not eating today…”

And be careful with how much information you give to others, it’s always up to you how much you want to reveal but it may be asking a lot for others to handle your food allergy stories. You always want to show consideration for others in any situation.

Q. Final thoughts on “making it” as a minority in a mostly white executive work world?

A. Always be true to yourself. Respect yourself and others. And always show confidence – people want to be around people with confidence.

Esther J. Cepeda writes the “600 Words” & “Pregunta del Dia” columns, and is also the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

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