Case of the Sniffles

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Businessman Donald Trump, as represented by the puppetry team behind the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q. Puppets created for a mock presidential debate by Rick Lyon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Businessman Donald Trump, as represented by the puppetry team behind the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q. Puppets created for a mock presidential debate by Rick Lyon.

In one of the most poignant vignettes in her terrific book Quick Before the Music Stops, my former Town & Country magazine colleague Janet Carlson recollects a daily commute next to her husband—a man with whom she was very much in love. Even during his occasional bouts of sniffling. As the years go by and the ardor evaporates from their marriage, the sniffles that once elicited a thoughtfully given, just-in-time tissue now produce in his wife feelings of annoyance. Hurtling toward Manhattan side-by-side on a commuter train each day, Janet begins to ponder why, after all this time, her spouse simply doesn't bring a pack of tissues and clean his own nose.

I was reminded of that anecdote while watching last night's presidential debate. With the first of several very pronounced sniffs (magnified by his wireless and podium microphones), Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump startled the television audience and unwittingly unleashed a torrent of Twitter jokes and memes about his sudden case of the sniffles.

Regardless of which side of the political fence you are on, chances are you can relate to having a runny nose (or the hiccups...or an uncontrollable cough). It's embarrassing and absolutely no fun——particularly when exiting the room is easier said than done. Such was the case last night during a ninety-minute debate with no commercials and unceasing, close-up camerawork that refused to blink.

Chances are you won't ever find yourself presenting in front of a TV audience of 80 million. Nonetheless, what are some best practices for preventing your allergy or seasonal cold from distracting from your otherwise professional presence and remaining mindful of business etiquette? Here are my 5 tips:

Consider the Disruption
If your malady has the potential to become the focus and distract from your presence at an event (whether as a guest or as a host), consider canceling or sending someone else in your stead. Better you stay home and get the rest you need than attempt to soldier through it and turn in a poor performance.

Come Prepared
If you've determined your're up to the task, be sure to give your body the help it needs. Don't be caught without a packet of tissues, cough drops, ample water, hand sanitizer and perhaps an antihistamine tablet. And please, please, please, save the hanky for sartorial flourish...not for cleaning your nose.

Acknowledge, Don't Dwell
If you are presenting in front of a group, defray the distraction by acknowledging the elephant in the room ("Please forgive my froggy voice...I'm just getting over laryngitis,") and move on. Making a bigger deal out of your temporary affliction will only further distract from your message.

Keep it Brief
If you're genuinely up to it and not contagious, commit to being at the function just long enough to fulfill your duties and then make a gracious exit. If you're making remarks, keep them short. (Few will mind.) If you simply need to make an appearance, see the folks you need to see and then leave. Don't feel the need to remain until the bitter end.

Play the Good Samaritan
In the same way your own first-aid kit can save you from embarrassment, be generous and offer your resources to anyone else in the room facing similar misery. A considerately provided cough drop or tissue is worth its weight in gold to someone muddling his or way through as you are.

As for the candidates themselves, come time for the next debate, I suggest both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton sniff out their opponent's weaknesses and come equipped with a pack of tissues.

Politeness on Plane: 7 Etiquette Dilemmas Resolved

Photo by Izabela Habur/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Izabela Habur/iStock / Getty Images

As more than 231 million passengers take to the skies aboard U.S. airlines this summer—a four-percent jump over last year’s record number of 222 million—lines are long, gates are jammed and flights are packed. (And let's not even get started on those notorious TSA lines.)

All of this means tensions are high for business travelers and leisure fliers alike. So what’s a mild-mannered passenger like you to do? Let's take a look at some of the most common etiquette dilemmas you’ll encounter when you get to the airport.

Dilemma: They’re boarding Group 2 and the "line" is a giant horde of passengers waiting to pounce when their group is called. You’re in Group 3.

Solution: You do no one (including yourself) any favors by trying to board with a group that is not your own. Be ready to step in to that "line" but in the interim, keep a safe distance, allowing each group to trudge forward as it is called. When the time comes, if you’re in doubt about the line assignment of the people staring into space in front of you, inquire of them politely: “Excuse me, are you also in Group 3?

Dilemma: The gate agent has just announced there is no more room in the overhead bins. You’ll now have to check your bag at the gate and pick it up at luggage claim once you reach your destination.

Solution: Grumbling to the gate agent will solve nothing. Neither will writing a furious letter to the president of the airline. Smile and get used to it. This is air travel in 2016. Unless you're in first or business class, any time you journey with a large carry-on, put yourself in the mindset that you will most likely have to check it. Then you can be pleasantly surprised if you don’t.

Dilemma: You’re in the jetway, which is backlogged and feeling like a sauna. As you stand in the queue, you feel your phone vibrating and see it’s your boss. You just know it’s not going to be a brief conversation.

Solution: This is what voicemail is for. No one on that jetway wants to be beholden to your work issues. Send the boss a brief email or text letting her know you are moments from takeoff and that you’ll be in contact while en-route (if your flight has WiFi) or once you land. Then immediately switch your phone to airplane mode, knowing you've done so with the business etiquette seal of approval.

Dilemma: You are assigned to a middle seat and the passengers on either side of you are using the armrests.

Solution: The one silver lining (and I mean the one silver lining) of having the middle seat is your right to both armrests. First try reason: “We have a long flight and I want to be sure we are all as comfortable as possible. Sitting here in the middle, I’d appreciate full access to this armrest if you don’t mind." You can follow that up with..."Although if you’d prefer to have the armrest, maybe you’d like to switch seats?”Once you have the armrests, forfeit them at your own risk—you may not have the chance to reclaim them later in the flight. Just be sure to keep your arms and elbows in your own space–don’t jab your seatmates.

Dilemma: The passenger on the aisle has fallen asleep and you’ve been in great need of a bathroom break for the past 30 minutes.

Solution: Unless you are in the exit row or in a row with ample clearance, do not attempt to hop over the aisle blocker next to you. This can only end badly—especially if the plane suddenly hits turbulence. Instead, tap the person gently on the shoulder and thank him or her as you exit and reenter the aisle. We’ve all been there.

Dilemma: The toddler behind you is alternating between wailing at the top of his lungs, kicking your seat and tapping on the LCD screen encased in your headrest.

Solution: Do not scold the child directly. Speak with the little one’s parent in a gentle way (“I’m so sorry to bother you with this…is there any way you could have your son/daughter be a bit gentler with the LCD screen? I’m hoping for a nap and it’s hard to do when my seat is getting rocked like this.” Do not mention the crying (this is what headphones are for—particularly the noise-cancelling variety). If the parent seems unwilling or unable to correct the problem, call the flight attendant. Explain the situation in an understanding manner (e.g.: “I realize the mother in the seat behind me certainly has her hands full, however….”)

Dilemma: You’ve finally made it to your destination and the plane had to wait on the tarmac for 90 minutes because the gate wasn’t available for your plane to park. Now that the cabin doors are open, all anyone can think about is getting off the aircraft. ASAP.

Solution: Rein in your instinct to dash out of your row before the people across the aisle from you. Let them go ahead of you and when you step into the aisle, help anyone in the immediate vicinity who is having difficulty pulling a bag down from the overhead compartment. So what if this delays your exit by thirty seconds? Practicing patience is a good thing, because you’re going to need it again very soon. Next up: the rental car counter!



Boldly Going Where No Etiquette Post Has Gone Before

It was five decades ago that a science fiction series with appallingly bad special effects (and, at times, equally bad acting) beamed its way into the hearts and minds of television audiences around the globe. Proof positive of its enduring appeal are the dozen-plus feature films in the franchise and more than 700 episodes across multiple TV iterations.  As the iconic television series Star Trek celebrates its golden anniversary this year, highlighted, among other ways, by last weekend's release of the thirteenth film in the franchise, I thought it apropos to mull five lessons we can learn from Captain Kirk and his Star Fleet successors in the realm of workplace etiquette.

1) Despite every crew member having primitive-looking "flip phones" (albeit with far better service and presumably cheaper rate plans), you would not catch the crew of the Starship Enterprise talking idly on their communicators to pass the time. (Especially during an important briefing.)
Workplace Lesson: Put your cell phone away when you're on the job. Save the Snapchatting for when you're off-duty. That goes double for playing Pokémon Go.

2) With a crew that represented a diverse mix of races as well as episodes that regularly featured women in leadership roles (successively more so as years went by), the franchise long-ago proved itself to be color-blind and refreshingly progressive. The show's lead characters didn't always agree with one another, but the differences they did have never stemmed from prejudice.
Workplace Lesson: Embrace diversity; your company and boardroom worldview will be richer for doing so.

3) The crews of the various TV series (from the original "Star Trek" to later incarnations "Star Trek: The Next Generation"; "Deep Space Nine"; "Voyager"; and "Enterprise") were unflinchingly loyal to their commanding officers. Captains reciprocated that dedication, going to the end of the universe (often literally) to save the life or reputation of an officer under his or her command.
Workplace Lesson: Respect goes both ways. If you want your team to follow you, demonstrate with your words and actions that you have their backs.

4) One of the guiding principles of the show, known as the Prime Directive, underscored the importance of not imposing a worldview on cultures that were different (or less developed) from their own. Although the rule wasn't not always followed to the letter, the concept was still a noble one.
Workplace Lesson: Encourage your fellow team members to learn new things, but don't act as though your way is the only way. Keep an open mind and you may be the one who gains the fresh insight rather than the other way around.


5) Appreciating the importance of conversing with alien cultures in their own language, the show's canon included something known as the universal translator—a technology that enabled species to converse in real time (and in their own voices and language) and still be understood as though they were uttering the listeners' native tongue.
Workplace Lesson: Communicating with others in a language they understand (both literally and figuratively) is essential for reaching a consensus. Technology being pioneered by Google and Skype is bringing us closer to the universal translator than ever before. In the interim, if you are working with a non-English speaker, make it your business to learn some key phrases and hire the right translator. Even if the other individual is conversant in English, your gesture will go a long way and allow you to begin a negotiation on the right foot.

What other television programs offer lessons for the workplace? Send me your thoughts on Twitter and Facebook.

Farewell to Small Talk and a Smile?


When was the last time you waited in line to see a bank teller? I'm happy to use an app or an ATM for most of my banking needs, but for occasions when my transaction is more complex than a basic withdrawal or deposit, I've never minded queuing. Perhaps it's owing to childhood memories of being in the car with my parents, idling at the local bank's drive-thru, where the smiling teller would ask: "Would he like an "L-O-L-L-I-P-O-P"? Even before I knew how to spell—let alone spell "lollipop," (two "l's" or three?)  it didn't take long for me to realize that this scarcely disguised messaging was code for candy. Yes, please!

With or without a lollipop, a teller transaction—even to this day—is most always a pleasant experience. A smile and some small talk. About the weather. About a long week coming to an end. About a good weekend had. About a new week commencing. Pleasant, courteous and enjoyable conversation that entails two people establishing a brief connection before the customer goes on his or her way.

And yet, I wonder for how much longer tellers will serve us at banks. At the local branch of my financial institution in New York, plunked ominously in front of the wall of mostly unattended teller windows now sit two machines. They are best-described as "super ATMs." The bank purports they do just about anything a teller can do, things ordinary ATMs can't. Always stationed nearby is an earnest employee whose primary responsibility, it seems, is to direct clients to one of these monstrosities rather than a person. If you demur, the greeter will provide a multitude of reasons for how an ATM on steroids can speed you along your way, sparing you the nuisance of having to wait for a teller.

I'm all for progress. I just wish it didn't come with the price tag of stripping away yet another opportunity for genuine human interaction. It depersonalizes the banking experience. Less and less is it a place to see friendly, smiling faces, employees who are genuinely vested (and invested) in our day-to-day fortunes.  It's becoming more so a place to spend time staring at a touch screen before grabbing a receipt and dashing out the revolving door.

Efficient? Yes. Accurate? So far so good. Small talk? Not unless you count beeps and chimes. Lollipops? Not a one. Then again, I think candy for kids went out of fashion years ago—along with the umbrellas and toasters you once got for opening up a passbook savings account.

"Farewell to Small Talk and a Smile?" is the first in a series of stories on this blog that will talk about self-service in 2016 and what it means for consumers and business etiquette in general.

Cancel on Me (Please!) But Not on Your Hairstylist

Keeping your appointments is about more than keeping up appearances.

Keeping your appointments is about more than keeping up appearances.

I've run six marathons and look forward to running many more. But even for those who've never crossed a 26.2-mile finish line, running around is a way of life. As we dash from meeting to meeting or drop the kids off at soccer games and ballet practices, most of us operate at high speed all day long, barely catching a breath until the day is finally through. And for that reason, when I suddenly find myself with spare time because someone has canceled business or social plans at the last-minute, my reaction is perhaps a surprising one. Typically, I'm thrilled. What may be a breach of business etiquette on the part of the cancelling party is cause for me to rejoice. It's an unexpected gift to have a spare hour or two in my schedule, one that operates at breakneck speed. Time to breathe. Time for me. Time to relax. Time to ponder.

And yet, for others, a last-minute cancellation is something to dread.

I have many friends in the service industries—from massage therapists to hair stylists, math tutors to personal trainers. For these individuals, each of whom hustles for every bit of business earned, time is money. A canceled appointment—particularly when the notice is short—has financial repercussions. They have set aside a block of time to work with a client, turning away others who might later request that same slot. In the same way a party host prepares her home for guests, service providers have prepared, too—whether putting together a fun lesson plan or gathering the essential oils their customer favors during a massage. And then, like a slap in the face, a cancellation. Or worse still, a no-show.

Even if the provider's place of work has a cancellation policy, no one wins when it's exercised. The client will typically resent paying for a service not received; the provider worries about the risk of losing the client as a result of that resentment. And of course, the tips that are the lifeblood of a provider's paycheck are notably absent from any cancellation fee.

Life happens. From horrendous traffic jams to sick kids, work obligations to unexpected free theater tickets, there are many reasons—valid and otherwise—why we might not be able to keep our appointments with a service provider. And yet, we owe it to the individuals who have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of others to afford them common courtesy when we need to cancel.

With that in mind, the following are some guidelines for canceling:

•Avoid the temptation to bail if your reason is discretionary (e.g., you're tired and don't feel like it). Remember no one likes a flake—even one who doesn't mind paying a cancellation charge. Honor your commitment to being where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be there.

•Cancel (when you must) as soon as you possibly can. Waiting to do so because you're dreading making the call wastes valuable time the practitioner could be using to line up another client to take your place.

•Ensure your notification gets through. Leaving a message on a machine after-hours is fine if that's the first opportunity you have, but follow-up your message with a call to a live receptionist once the business opens the next day.

•If the cancellation is last-minute, offer to pay for the cost of the service. Even if the establishment does not charge for skipped appointments, you'll be demonstrating your respect for the professional's time. Most likely, they will decline. Nonetheless, you'll have proven yourself the bigger person for making the offer.

•Apologize to your service provider the next time you go for an appointment. A brief apology and a bit of extra tip to acknowledge their hardship will go a long way.