Everyday Diplomacy: Etiquette Basics

Sep 10, 2017 · 10 min read

“Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations.”

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

Have you ever had to trim down, say, a wedding guest list and deal with the consequences? Ever invited to a cocktail reception or afternoon tea? Went to a job interview? Thought wearing a jacket’s a no-brainer?

Say etiquette or protocol and you can almost catch a whiff of the old-book smell, see heavy velvet curtains, polished parquet floors and stale conversations. The subject might seem snobby, far-removed, and obsolete to my generation, but bear with me here. Protocol and etiquette are not reserved for the diplomatic stage, high-ranking officials, ladies in fur coats and 19th century heiresses with governesses. Protocol and etiquette are, in fact, resources for proper conduct in unfamiliar settings, toolkits to leave a lasting good first impression, avoid giving offence, and a hallmark of sophistication.

Most importantly perhaps, familiarity with basic protocol and etiquette can be a source of great comfort at important social and professional occasions, like your best friend’s wedding or your first job interview. It can make your life easier and even get you hired. So here are some basics.

How to Button a Jacket?

Don’t touch the bottom button of the jacket.

Legend has it that in the early 1900s King Edward VII started the trend of leaving the bottom button of his suit undone. He had apparently grown somewhat overweight and could no longer fasten the bottom button of his jacket and waistcoat. Everyone around him followed suit — pun intended — out of respect. Soon, the manufacturers caught on and started designing suits to fit this purpose.

Modern two- or three-button jackets are cut in a way that the fabric doesn’t drape properly when the bottom button is fastened. For a three-button jacket the rule is sometimes, always, never: sometimes fasten the top button, always fasten the middle button, and never button the third. On a double-breasted jacket, make sure to button every button or do your own thing if you’re radically fashionable, just don’t quote me on it. Knowing which button to button shows that you pay attention to detail and that you wear a suit regularly, even if that’s really not the case.

“Taste in dress is innate in some, acquired in others — but it can be had by any man who wants it.”

Amy Vanderbilt, Complete Book of Etiquette, 1958, p. 174

Also very important: make sure you unbutton your jacket when you sit so it doesn’t crease and your buttons don’t pop. I wouldn’t know, but sitting in a buttoned jacket looks awfully uncomfortable.

Other Strange Dress Codes

Here’s a glimpse of what is de rigueur when it comes to proper attire, particularly in business, where modesty is the best policy.

“Society is founded on dress, without which it would cease to exist.”

Carlyle as quoted by John R Wood and Jean Serres, Diplomatic Ceremonial and Protocol

In any strict professional setting, you should never go bare-legged. For women this means that you should always be wearing stockings, even in high summer. If you want to go full proper and will be meeting the Queen, only nude shades are allowed and no patterns.

In conjunction with this rule, and also as its direct result, you should never ever wear anything open-toed, peep-toes included. Exposed heels in sling-backs are, however, perfectly fine.

Exacting revenge for having to wear stockings: under strict professional attire, men should never wear short-sleeved shirts. You may, however, roll up the long sleeves of your button-down.

Oh, and you know that button-down collar shirt you think is super formal? A bit of history: it was created for polo players to avoid having their collars flap up during game. It became popular with American athletes and soon became the most casual shirt option. It’s great for a Sunday outing — not so much for that big meeting.

Finally, after five o’clock, or once artificial lighting is needed, men should not be seen in brown suits. Only grey, black and navy are appropriate for the evening.

Black Tie Extravaganza

You’ve received an invitation to an official function or a wedding and the attire says ‘black tie’. Black tie is second only to white tie and is worn exclusively for evening affairs that begin after six.

First order of business — ladies:

For black tie functions, women can wear either a formal long evening dress or a short cocktail dress and both may be sleeveless. Like every fashion magazine will tell you, a high-quality little black dress is a good staple to have in your closet for such occasions. No matter how simple, it’s something that can always be upgraded with an amazing pair of car-to-carpet shoes. Above-elbow gloves are optional with a sleeveless gown, but consider yourself warned: they tend to seem a tad old-fashioned. If you want to stand out, very dressy long pants are also allowed.

On to gentlemen. You’ll need a black dinner jacket with satin or silk facings on the jacket’s lapels and buttons. The jacket pocket should be adorned by a white linen pocket square and you can choose to wear a boutonniere — a single flower in the buttonhole on the lapel. The trousers should continue the leitmotif with a single stripe of satin covering the outseams. They should be uncuffed and worn with braces. You’ll also need a black waistcoat or cummerbund as well as a tuxedo shirt with French cuffs — the cuffs that require cuff links — and a turndown or winged standing collar.

Don’t take ‘black tie’ too literary; what you’ll need as the cherry on top is a black silk bow tie — not a regular neck tie — and none of that clip-on nonsense.

Finally, socks. A universal rule in men’s fashion: never wear short socks that would reveal any skin when sitting. This is all the more important for all formal attires, so make sure to stock up on black silk dress socks that cover the entire length of your calf. As for shoes, black patent leather pumps or oxfords are the way to go, but make sure the soles aren’t too thick or in a contrasting color.

Who Introduces Whom?

When making introductions, honor is recognized by the name spoken first, meaning that the higher-ranking person’s name should be mentioned first.

When introducing your friend Tim to your boss Sarah at an office party, you would say “Sarah, may I introduce Tim, an old friend, who loves art as much as you do.” Make sure to slip in a conversation starter, telling each individual a bit of information about the other. After all, “pleasant introductions make good first impressions” as Ambassador Mary Mel French, former Chief of Protocol for President Clinton, once said.

Also important to remember — in most situations, men are introduced to women and a younger person is introduced to an older person: “Aunt Susan, I want you to meet my friend Nicole.”

Where Does the Napkin Go?

The dinner napkin should be taken from the table and placed on your lap when you sit down. Dinner napkins are larger in size compared to luncheon napkins and should be placed on the lap by unfolding them halfway with the fold facing your body. Luncheon size napkins are smaller and are unfolded completely. Wait for the host or hostess to open their napkin before opening yours. Do not do so it by shaking it but rather discreetly under the table. When the meal is over, the napkin should be casually folded and placed on the left side of the plate, or, if the plate has already been removed, in front of you. Leave your napkin on the chair lightly folded when you leave the table during a meal. Do not place it on the saucer under a cup.

When you want to take a sip from your glass, make sure you dab your mouth with your napkin to avoid staining the rim of the glass. Always dab your mouth with a napkin, never wipe.

This should go without saying, but just in case: if you’re wearing a shirt, never tuck the napkin into the collar or between the buttons and don’t use your napkin as a handkerchief.

While we’re at the subject of fine dining, all items not having to do with food and decoration should remain off the table. That includes keys, clutch bags, sunglasses, and especially phones.

From the Outside In

“There should never be any question of which silver to use: You always start with the implement of each type that is farthest from the plate.”

Emily Post, Etiquette, 14th Edition, p. 104

This question keeps coming up, but the answer is always the same: work your way in and assume that the table is correctly set. As for the dessert silver, start at the top. When you have finished the main course, the knife and fork are placed in parallel on the plate diagonally from upper left to lower right with the handles extending slightly over the edge of the plate.

There are two different styles of using a knife and a fork: the American and the European style. The first implies changing the fork from left to right hand after using the knife to cut food and, although uncommon in Europe, is perfectly correct, but perhaps unnecessarily complicated. The European method of leaving the fork in your left hand after using the knife with your right hand is much simpler.

One of the most common, but less known, faux pas: never place the fork and knife on the plate with the handles touching the table. Once you pick up the utensils they should not touch the table again.

Dining Don’ts

Preschool rules to eating and safeguarding your food no longer apply, so:

  • Don’t encircle your plate with the left arm while eating with the right hand.
  • Don’t push back your plate when finished.
  • Don’t drink if your mouth is already filled with food.
  • Don’t crook your finger when picking up your cup. It’s an affected mannerism.


Avoid indulging in arguments on social networks and keep personal conversations private. Keep in mind how easily e-gossip can be forwarded along to the wrong person.

Posting photos of your friend’s babies or children on your social media accounts without their knowledge and permit can be a major breach of trust.

When using a distribution list for a generic e-mail, such as an invitation or a notice, always conceal the recipients by putting them in bcc. Never assume everyone is fine with you sharing their e-mail address with a list of random people. This will also prevent an e-mail storm, because the recipients won’t be able to ‘reply to all’.

There are other things you shouldn’t do when emailing, and the following top the list: shout in all caps, use colored fonts, attach large files or forward an email unless appropriate.

Applause at the Opera and at Concerts

I’ll leave it to Amy Vanderbilt to explain:

It is proper at the opera to applaud after arias — the claque usually indicated when — and of course at each curtain. Entrances should not be applauded — but sometimes are by the over-enthusiastic who thus break the spell of the introductory measures.

At concerts applause is held, even after a solo, until the conductor, by turning on the podium toward the audience, indicates that the selection is over. Even at the end of a program the enchantment should never be broken by applause until the conductor has turned for his bow to the audience. His each appearance from the wings is applauded, however, but the house becomes quiet the minute he turns to face the orchestra.

Amy Vanderbilt, Complete Book of Etiquette, 1958, p. 591

Work Etiquette

The level of familiarity at work of course depends on whether you’re employed by a start-up, a government agency or are your own boss, but some details are worth considering.

One example is this: when leaving a room in a business office, always step back to allow your superior to go first if they are about to leave too.

This one is important because it seems counter-intuitive at first glance: when getting into a taxi with a superior, go first so she doesn’t have to scooch across the seat. When entering the elevator, also go first. This is to allow the senior person to exit first.

Finally, it’s probably advisable to follow your boss on Twitter, but you shouldn’t try to friend him or her on Facebook. Friends implies equivalency; followers, not really.

The Big Idea

You might have noticed a common thread to all rules of etiquette: even if you know nothing about it, you would be well-mannered instinctively if you only think about other people’s feelings first instead of your own convenience.

If you have a story about how good manners saved the day or an obscure etiquette question, do comment below.

P.S. Once again, thanks to tibor for all the illustrations!


Written by

Swapped conference interpreting for diplomatic protocol. Here to maximize my daily commute, overcome my posting anxiety, and embrace perpetual beta.

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