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Business etiquette: To hug or not to hug, is that the question?

My name’s Manon Raja, I’m 19 and I’m proud to be cofinitive’s lone millennial/Gen Z.  But I also want to share how I’m completely baffled by the older generation’s social Ps & Qs – or rather, what’s known as ‘business etiquette culture’.

To hug or not to hug? And I’m not talking COVID-19 precautions…

What I’m talking about is this: I’ve never been taught what to do in a work ‘social situation’. So I have absolutely no idea, when meeting a business associate ‘socially’, whether I should be hugging, hand-shaking, high-fiving, fist-pumping, nodding, waving, cheek-kissing … or even kissing both cheeks … or three.

How on earth does anyone know this stuff? Where do you learn?

The other week, I have to confess to feeling completely non-plussed when I attended a work event on behalf of cofinitive … and where I was completely thrown when having to introduce myself to an extensive gathering of older-generations.

I’m certainly not alone in my confusion. In fact, work etiquette is an increasingly confounding problem amongst my peers.

In a casual setting, most people my age would just hug or wave when paths cross. But a ‘casual’ business environment appears to call for a completely different set of cues … and rules.

Problem is, the only ‘business etiquette’ education I’ve ever received was in my last couple of years at secondary school. And that was only because the teachers themselves felt it was important – meaning it wasn’t even on the curriculum! That said, these classroom etiquette classes were extremely formal and basic. We were only ever taught “what to do during an interview” – which left us with the lasting impression that life after school in the world of business was going to be anything but ‘informal’.

Now, personally, I have been ‘acclimatised’ to being casual with people my entire life – requiring, at best, a distance wave. So the idea of close body contact – be it the grasping of hands or pressing of cheeks (and with a virtual stranger) – leaves me feeling both awkward and confused. Worse, my standoffishness and reluctance to ‘physically engage’, could easily be mistaken for me being rude. And I’d hate to insult anyone, especially unknowingly.

It’s not that I don’t want to shake someone’s hand or kiss their cheek, it’s just that I can’t work out when, or even whether, it’s appropriate or not.

I’m not saying etiquette itself is something to be scared of – but when a new generation is introduced to a world without these social functions, it can be stressful (frightening even) when you are expected to know what to do … but don’t.

So where do we start with educating the next set of students in the ways of business world etiquette? How do we breach the gap between experienced business people and fledgling newbies?

One solution might be going to the roots of the education system and including business etiquette/ professionalism classes as part of the curriculum. That could go a long way towards helping students like me understand the different ways to behave within personal and business friendships.  And it’s also important for students to recognise how important it is to treat those around them with the proper decorum and respect, especially if they have the potential to morph into invaluable business contacts.

For those students already immersed in the world of business or work, I think it falls on their employer’s shoulders to ensure they are properly briefed in the correct business etiquette for the different social occasions they could potentially find themselves in.

However, I realise now that everyone is unsure about how to introduce themselves at some time or another. Even the most self-assured of us.

When in doubt, there’s a lot to be said about just being your authentic self. What feels right will rarely steer you in the wrong direction!