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.

Emoji Etiquette

The world's love affair with emojis is undeniable. From their humble beginnings among Japanese anime fans in the late 1990s up to the present, they have become a ubiquitous part of our communications. In Tweets and text messages, Facebook posts and Snapchat exchanges, advertising campaigns and apparel, blink and you'll miss an emoji (or four).

What is so appealing about these simple-faced icons and their pictographic kin such as pizza slices and flamenco dancers? For starters, they provide an emotional context to text-based messages. In an age where a thoughtlessly deployed punctuation mark can imply sarcasm, gratitude or confusion (witness: "Thanks a lot."/"Thanks a lot!/Thanks a lot?"), emojis provide a more precise shorthand to grasping our state of mind. They are an easy way to convey frustration, affection, exhaustion and more. Which means fewer misunderstood messages—with just a tap of a button. Who wouldn't be a fan of that?

With the impending arrival of 72 new emojis later this month, including ones for "Rolling on the Floor Laughing" and "Shrugging," these adorable creature characters are clearly here to stay. So what are some best practices for emoji use? I spoke on that topic this morning on the Today show. Here are some of my tips for employing emojis considerately:

1. Make sure you've selected the right one for the job
Since they are tiny, it's easy to mistake a crying emoji for a tears of joy emoji, a relieved emoji for a sleepy emoji. The face you use should reinforce your message...not muddy it.

2. Remember that emojis appear different on different platforms
Apple emojis look like distant cousins of Android emojis; Facebook emojis are radically distinct from LG's; Twitter's are not the same as HTC's. When in doubt, stick to the simpler emojis to ensure there will be no confusion of meaning. Case in point is the "Grinning Face, Smiling Eyes" emoji as seen below in various interpretations on multiple platforms.

IMAGE: COURTESY, GroupLens Research at the University of Minnesota

IMAGE: COURTESY, GroupLens Research at the University of Minnesota

3. Avoid emoji overuse...a little goes a long way
Endless strings of emojis with seemingly no meaning but nonsense, or emojis posing as rebus puzzles are best left to children's workbooks. In short, if it doesn't strengthen your meaning, take it out.

4. Use caution with emojis in business
Practicing good business etiquette means keeping an appropriate level of formality—particularly when dealing with a client or the boss. Even with colleagues, exercise emoji restraint, using an emoji only with work associates you know will appreciate the time-savings. If a picture paints a thousand words, go for it.

5. Continue using words
Language exists to be harnessed and let loose, driven and explored. The Oxford Dictionary may have admitted the emoji at the top of this post ("Tears of Joy") as 2015's "word of the year," but civilization moved past hieroglyphics for a reason. Emojis provide us with a marvelous tool for quick chats, but they are no substitute for smart conversation, whether written or face-to-face. :)




Super Bowl Etiquette

Photo by nathan shively via unsplash

Photo by nathan shively via unsplash

As the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos gear up for today's Super Bowl match-up, a series of smaller battles will be unfolding in living rooms across America. Just what will be getting some fans in an uproar? After seventeen weeks of tuning in to watch their favorite teams on the big screen, football lovers suddenly find themselves in the presence of mixed company....house guests who have come for the food, others who are mostly interested in socializing, a cluster who will savor the commercials and still others who care mostly about the halftime show. With so many competing rationales for attending a Super Bowl party, an occasional (if mostly harmless) clash is inevitable. Here to ensure your friends don't throw a penalty flag on your behavior are some goal posts for proper game-watching etiquette:

Dress Down
This is one of the few parties where dressing your best is discouraged. Pull on a football jersey, a pair of jeans and some sneakers, and you'll be good to go. Neckties not welcome.

You'll be doing a lot of eating at a Super Bowl party, and certainly some drinking, too. Pull your weight and ask the host what you can bring. Don't show up expecting to be fed without bringing something for everyone else to share.

Delay of Game
Apart from an Oscar party, a Super Bowl soirée is the only social gathering where a television set should be front and center. As a result, arriving after kickoff is akin to walking in late to a movie...it's disruptive to the other guests who are already glued to the game. Get to the party on-time, say your hellos and take your seat. Which leads us to:

No Seat Interceptions
The chair you chose when you arrive is yours for the duration. Your popping up for food during a commercial break is not license for another guest to steal your seat.

Instant Replay
Unlike key plays on the field, the commercials don't get an instant reply. Since for many of us, watching the ads is just as much sport as watching the game, guests should keep quiet during the commercials. And have the tissues handy, as some of the ads can be downright weepy.

Lurking by the food table, preventing others from easy access to the chips, dip and submarine sandwiches is just as likely as any of the behavior on this list to get you tackled. Take what you want (leaving plenty for others, of course) and move along.

The rule during halftime is the same as during game time: down in front. If you're not interested in the halftime show, don't ruin it for others by talking during the performances or standing in front of the screen.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct
With all ages likely in attendance at a Super Bowl party, adults should mind their language--no matter how frustrating a referee's call might be. Keep your comments clean, and remember: at the end of the day, it's just a game.

Don't crowd the scorekeeper who's minding the boxes in the betting pool. Let him or her do his job, announcing the winners at the end of each quarter. And if luck is not with you, accept your gambling defeat graciously.

Out of Bounds
It's a Sunday night and most of us will have jobs (or school) to get to in the morning. So once the game is done, make sure to help clear up and then be prepared to clear out. Don't overstay your welcome.

Follow these guidelines and you'll score an etiquette touchdown. Enjoy the game everyone, and may the best team win!


Time to Put Pen to Paper!


The photo at right says it all. At one time, this box surely brimmed with letters, correspondence that chased its way downward through the floors of this downtown Manhattan office building before coming to rest in the lobby, ready to be sped on its way by an employee of the United States Postal Service. And today? Whitewashed. Barely legible, the words: "U.S. MAIL LETTER BOX." Painted over like a poster for a film that left the theaters many seasons ago.

When was the last time you hand-wrote a message to someone you love? If you’re like most, it’s been a long while (if ever). In our era, email has endangered eloquence; emojis have enfeebled expression. And yet, if you believe the hand-written note has outlived its usefulness, I urge you to reconsider. In a time marked by Tweets and texts, #TBTs and TTYLs, there is no better way to convey sentiments that will endure than by putting them down on paper.

With this in mind, and just in time for National Card and Letter Writing Month, I've partnered with the Hotel Hugo in New York City on a 30-day campaign to promote the penning of truly meaningful messages. After check-in, guests discover in their room a set of complimentary, custom note cards. The hotel and I are encouraging guests to think of a special person in their life, put their thoughts on paper, seal the envelope and bring it to the lobby, where the hotel will mail the correspondence for free anywhere in the world.

Though you may not be staying at the Hugo, you can still take part in the campaign. Write even one note this month and rediscover the joys of expressing yourself on paper. If you're feeling rusty, never fear. Here are my top tips for creating a keepsake that’s cherished…for all the “write reasons,” of course.

special edition Forever stamp issued by the usps to commemorate national card & letter writing month

special edition Forever stamp issued by the usps to commemorate national card & letter writing month

 1. Penmanship counts. (And so does your pen.) In fact, the two can be closely linked. Find the implement that allows you to write as neatly as possible. Too inky and you’ll get blots. Too greasy and you’ll leave smudges. With a porous card stock, a fountain pen can be very elegant, though a felt-tip pen may provide cleaner results. Skip the ballpoint entirely, and if your handwriting is just a shade above legible, consider printed- rather than cursive lettering.

 2. Blue is not the new black. Ink the color of ebony is the appropriate choice for a formal note card. Eschew the blue and whatever you do, avoid red at all costs.

 3. Be a dear. Date the card in the upper-right and start off with a salutation; invariably this will be “Dear” or “Dearest”…you’ll have more options when it comes to the complimentary close. (See below.)

4. Get your messaging down. Consider composing your note on a computer first and transcribing it to the note card second. This allows you to find the most appropriate wording without ruining precious paper in the process. You can also run a spell-check before committing, thus avoiding unsightly cross-outs. Make your message matter by being as descriptive and expressive as possible.

5. In closing. Select a complimentary close that suits your relationship with the recipient. This is also your chance to show more flourish. Some suggestions: Affectionately; Thinking of You; Love Always; Your Friend Forever; Devotedly; Gratefully Yours; With Deepest Thanks. And don’t forget to sign the card…first-name only unless the recipient won’t know you from your given name alone.

6. Stamp of individuality. Place the card in the envelope right-side up, with the front of the card facing the flap. Hand-addressing is a must—in the same ink you used for the note. Stick to a real postage stamp (as opposed to a printed label or meter imprint). Skip the ubiquitous USPS flag stamps unless the intent of your note is to be patriotic. Instead, enhance the theme of your card with a stamp appropriate to the message you’ve written. Last but not least, don’t forget to include your return address, which—if you’ve played your card right—will spur and facilitate an equally treasured reply.