Category: Manners: A Lost Art

The articles in this section express my thoughts on (and hopefully offer some advice on how to maintain) basic etiquette in the modern world. The purpose is to share what each of us, men and women, can do in our own lives to make life more pleasant for those around us and, as a result, for ourselves.

What Your Body Language Says About You

What Your Body Language Says About You

In the previous Manners: A Lost Art article, we touched on The Basics of Good Manners. Today we are going to briefly discuss the nuances of body language. Yes, you read correctly: body language. Some may be surprised how important body language is to good manners.

Before we begin, it is important to mention that different cultures have different ideas and concepts surrounding appropriate body language. I will be approaching the subject from a North American, particularly an American, point-of-view. If you are residing outside of the United States, I highly recommend that you learn what body language is deemed appropriate for the culture that you are living in.

Eye Contact

In North American culture, eye contact is a significant aspect of body language and what a person does with his or her eyes can tell a lot about his or her attitude and mindset. Unless the situation is confrontational, steady eye contact is a sign of respect, attention, interest, and self-confidence. It is acceptable for adults and children of both sexes to make eye contact with other people.

Business woman speaking with two people.
Image: photostock /

To show respect and interest during an introduction, conversation, lecture, or professional meeting, you should keep your eyes on the speaker for the majority of the time he or she is speaking. If you are having a one-on-one conversation, it is recommended to look at the person speaking for 5 or so seconds at a time. It is not necessary to make direct eye contact—which many people are uncomfortable with and, depending on the situation, is a common flirting method—focus instead on the triangle made by the nose and mouth.

Do not confuse steady eye contact with staring, glaring, or ogling. A rule of thumb to ensure you are making the right type of eye contact is to mimic the facial expressions of the speaker, such as showing concern, smiling, etc., and nod or shift your head from time to time. Feel free to blink and even look away momentarily, such as when taking notes during a lecture. Blinking too fast, however, is often taken as nervousness or discomfort.

We should be aware of the message that our eyes send to those around us. Eyes can show interest or disinterest, respect or disrespect, happiness or anger, enjoyment or irritation. When I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it became very popular among the kids and teenagers to roll their eyes whenever they were irritated or not interested in what the other person (usually a parent, teacher, or authority figure) was saying. This type of gesture is rude and should be avoided. In the United States, avoiding eye contact is often interpreted as timidness, weakness, or disrespect.

When traveling outside of North America, be sure to investigate the meaning of eye contact in whatever culture(s) you will be visiting. In some places, such as Europe, eye contact may imply romantic interest and making eye contact with the wrong person might land you into an uncomfortable situation. In many Asian cultures, avoiding eye contact with a superior or the opposite sex is considered a sign of respect; therefore, making eye contact with a superior or someone of the opposite sex is disrespectful, rude, or arrogant.


You may be thinking: “What does posture have to do with manners?” Very simple: good posture not only is important to your physical wellbeing but will also improve your self-confidence, which in turn effects how you interact with others and how others perceive you.

When standing, remember to keep your back straight, shoulders back, and stomach in. (For those unsure how to keep your “stomach in”, keep your abdominal muscles tightened. Be careful, though, you do not want have to have your muscles so tight that you cannot move naturally or breathe.) If you are not used to this proper posture, it may feel uncomfortable or unnatural at first. However, as you continually remind yourself to stand up straight, shoulders pulled back, and stomach tight, you will find it will become natural and you will feel better physically and emotionally.

When sitting, do not slouch your shoulders or slump over but keep your torso straight. Ladies, though we are often taught it is lady-like to cross our legs, always be mindful of your attire. If you are wearing pants, then you may cross the legs at the knees. This is also appropriate for men, though the majority of men these days choose to rest an ankle on their opposite knee instead. Ladies, if you are wearing a skirt or dress, keep your legs and knees together so you do not inadvertently flash those around you; if keeping your legs together is uncomfortable, you may opt for crossing your feet at the ankles and tucking your feet a little under the chair or to one side.

Posture goes even farther than simply proper standing or sitting positions. Posture is a non-verbal indicator of your current attitude. When you are interested, you may lean forward towards the speaker. If you are uncomfortable, you may lean backwards away from whatever or whomever is causing the discomfort and cross your arms. Keeping hands in pockets often comes across as a casual, comfortable behavior but could also be misinterpreted by others as a sign of timidness or discomfort. Depending upon the situation, you may decide to having only one hand in your pocket and use the other hand to do simple gestures while you speak.

Arms can be awkward. If you are not prone to gesturing, you may wonder what you should do with your arms and hands, especially in one-on-one conversations. Letting both of your arms hang at your sides may or may not be comfortable for some people so you could try tucking one arm loosely behind your back (your wrist would lay right either in the small of your back or over your bottom). There are many more options for when you are seated. Practice various arm and hand positions and determine which is the most comfortable for you while still presenting a professional image.

Keeping Still

One aspect of good manners is the ability to keep still, which basically means not fidgeting. This includes bouncing a foot or rocking while seated; playing with hair, chair, or other object; continually touching one’s face or itchy/scratching; blowing bubbles with your gum or chewing very loudly; biting or picking at fingernails; etc. These types of fidgeting imply restlessness, nervousness, discomfort, or indifference and should be avoided in public and/or formal settings.

I should mention an exception to this guideline: sometimes fidgeting is an unconscious symptom of a larger condition. I had an acquaintance that was in a terrible car accident, it was truly a miracle she even survived, but her right arm would occasionally spasm. She had no control of it, and while some might find it distracting, it is good manners to overlook instances where such a thing is uncontrollable. However, if you are perfectly capable of keeping still and fidget simply out of habit, you should be aware that such behavior is often interpreted by those around you as rude and the result of poor self-discipline and low self-respect.

Personal space

Two young men talking.
Image: Andy Newson /

Perhaps one of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspect of good manners is the issue of personal space. In the United States, personal space is tremendously important and violating someone’s personal space, even accidentally, can create negative impressions towards you. Most people are comfortable with two to three feet of space between them and another person, especially someone holding a conversation with them. You may notice, when someone begins to encroach upon another’s personal space, the victim may lean backwards to create more space, cross their arms over their chest to form a visual barrier, or actually take a step backwards. When opposite genders are involved, violating personal space could be misinterpreted as unwanted sexual attention or even sexual harassment, even more so if the perpetrator touches the victim without permission.

Touching is a very delicate issue. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake should be the only form of touching. Through multiple face-to-face meetings, an acquaintanceship is formed and you begin to discover what types of physical interaction is welcomed or not by the other individual. Some individuals open up to new people very quickly and are more lenient towards physical (non-sexual) contact such as clapping someone on the shoulder, friendly hug, etc. Other individuals are more guarded and find physical contact very personal, only to be done among very good friends and family. The only way to know what degree of contact is appropriate is to build a relationship with that person and over time, you will learn. When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself and stand at least two feet away from the other person.

On a more humorous note, keeping a distance of two to three feet allow those individuals who are prone to wild gesticulation space so not to accidentally hit those he or she is speaking to. Receiving an unintended whack to the nose by someone’s hand is not an altogether pleasant experience, even if you end up laughing about it later on.

And that, my friends, is a brief run down on body language. Again, please remember that the meanings and appropriate behaviors addressed in this article are specifically for the North American culture and applicable especially to the United States. If you are residing elsewhere, it is important to look into the appropriate behaviors and meanings of body language within your culture. If you take away nothing else from this article, ask yourself this simple question: What does my body language say about me?

The Basics of Good Manners

The Basics of Good Manners

In this first article of this series Manners: A Lost Art, we will begin building the foundation of our behavior by discussing the basics of good manners. Many of us learned these as children growing up, but sometimes we lose sight of the importance of politeness in the hectic, often rude world in which we live. Good manners may sound a bit old fashioned, but there is more to it than archaic rules governing behavior. When we display good manners, we convey respect and consideration towards those around us, which will assist in fostering positive relationships.

Use the polite phrases.

Always use the polite phrases in your daily conversations: “Please”, “Thank you”, and “You’re welcome”. These polite phrases carry far more weight than we often realize. The phrases “Excuse me” and “Pardon me” can be used in multiple situations: if you must make a necessary interruption to enter or exit a conversation, to make a request (sometimes an awkward request) of someone, to leave a table, or to apologize.

Also, remember to use polite greetings, such as “Hello”, “Good morning”, “Good Afternoon”, and “Good Evening”. Even when you are familiar with someone, using a polite greeting is more complimentary than “Hi”, “Hey”, “What’s up?”, and other common greetings. If you do not already use the polite phrases, make a conscience effort to begin including them in your conversations. After a while, you will develop a habit, and it will become natural.

Use respectful language.

Making use of respectful language implies consideration for those around you and can assist you in avoiding bad impressions. Use proper titles and manner of address, such as “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Ms.”, “Sir”, “Ma’am” if the addressee is someone unfamiliar with you, in a superior position than you, or older than you or use the manner of address the individual has expressed a preference for with those familiar with you. It is important to speak clearly, not mumbling nor slurring; use your best speech and pronunciation; and do not speak too loudly nor too fast. Depending upon the situation, you may want to avoid colloquial expressions—there are appropriate times and places for casual, laid-back conversation. You should use “Yes” and “No” instead of “Yeah” or “Yup” and “Nah” or “Nope”.

Respectful language also means avoiding cursing, disrespectful words and phrases with negative connotations, insulting and degrading conversation, gossip, crude jokes, and bodily functions. Also, it is disrespectful to make a habit of interrupting others, to change the subject of a conversation abruptly, or make yourself the center of conversation through boasting or bragging.

One of my pet peeves is when an individual responds with a loud, obnoxious “What?!” or “What is it?!” or “Huh?” when he or she hears his or her name called. This rude method of response was very common with children when I was growing up, and now I witness it in public venues, such as grocery stores and restaurants, and even in the workplace. More polite and respectful responses would be: “Yes?” or “Can I help you?” If you need to ask someone for clarification, you should ask: “Could you say that again, please?”, “Pardon?”, or even “I’m sorry?”

Sincerely Apologize and Graciously Accept Apologies.

Sincere apologies are also an important part of good manners, and making and accepting apologies demonstrate grace and maturity that is often lacking in today’s world with the too prominent “no fault” attitudes. Apologies, when given in earnest, can even defuse volatile situations, because many people find it difficult to remain angry with someone who has openly admitted his or her error or wrongdoing and sincerely asks for forgiveness.

While admitting our faults or mistakes may not always be easy, it is the morally right course of action. Some may believe that apologizing somehow shows weakness and frailty, but the opposite is actually true. It takes a strong, mature individual to recognize his or her mistake, to openly admit this wrong by asking for forgiveness, and then to learn from the mistake. Likewise, it takes a strong, mature individual to accept an apology from and grant forgiveness to the one who wronged you in some way.

Extending common courtesies to others.

Common courtesies go beyond the polite phrases and respectful language to include attitude and actions. Everything from holding the door for someone, man or woman, following you closely in or out of a building; holding the elevator if there is room for more passengers; opting to take the stairs, if feasible, than an elevator when there is a crowd; allowing someone with only a few items to go ahead of you at a store check-out if you have a cart-full of items; parking farther back in a parking lot to allow the closer spaces for those with a greater need for proximity to the building entrance (disabled, elderly, pregnant women, etc.); leaving a tip at a restaurant; sending Thank You Cards to express your gratitude; smiling instead of frowning even if you are having a bad day; offering your seat to a pregnant woman or elderly individual; and much more. These common courtesies tend to be “small” actions, but they can have a profound impact on someone’s day. In addition, showing courtesy to those around you can improve your own attitude, because helping others, even if it is something small, gives you a sense of satisfaction, contentment, and happiness.

At the same time, common courtesy means there are some behaviors that you avoid, such as staring (this includes ogling an attractive man or woman); loud or noticeable gum chewing and bubble-blowing; leaving a mess behind you, whether at a restaurant, office, or home (Parents, this means cleaning up your children’s messes. Pet owners, this also means cleaning up your pet’s messes when you take them for walks or out in public.); and not returning something to the way you found it. (Gentlemen, this includes not putting the toilet seat down. If it was down when you entered the bathroom, be sure to put it down before you leave.)

Depending upon the situation and the company you are with, you may also need to take into consideration those little things that others may find irritating: sniffling, cracking knuckles or popping joints, itching, obnoxious laughter, etc. If you know that a certain habit causes someone annoyance, you show that you care for and respect that person by avoiding said habit in their presence. Basically, common courtesies means intentionally creating a comfortable environment for those around you instead of thinking of yourself first.

Table manners are important.

When dining in public or invited to a meal, sometimes it seems that table manners have gone the way of the dodo and dinosaurs… extinct. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is: chew with your mouth closed. Chewing with your mouth open (partially or widely) is more than disrespectful to the other guests—it is disgusting. Also avoid smacking, slurping, burping, and other loud noises.

Other points that you should consider include using utensils properly, not like a shovel; cut your food into bit-sized pieces; do not put too much food into your mouth at one time; use your napkin; and your posture: slouching, elbows on the table, and reaching across the table should be avoided. Politely ask for items to be passed to you instead, and use “Excuse me” when leaving the table. It is also advisable to avoid blowing your nose, picking your teeth, or answering a call or text message on your cellphone at the table. If it most be done, politely excuse yourself from the table. If, for some reason, you cannot leave the table, apologize to the other guests before and after.

Self-awareness and grooming your personal image.

While appearance is not everything, the reality of this world in which we live is that often appearance plays an important role in first impressions and how people perceive you. Right or wrong, appearance discloses a lot about a person, and so it is equally important for you to groom your personal image. First and foremost is personal hygiene and cleanliness; it is perfectly acceptable to show respect for yourself by allowing time for proper hygiene: bathing, clean hair and face, brushing teeth, washing hands, and wearing clean, unstained clothes. You should buy clothes that compliment your body type and complexion and shoes that are both nice and comfortable. Make sure that you dress appropriately for the occasion: for example, do not wear shorts when it is snowing outside, go to a business meeting wearing jeans and flip-flops, or do your gardening in your church clothes. When you take care of yourself, you will find that you are comfortable in your own skin and have renewed confidence.

Though one aspect of your personal image is your clothing choices, it is more than just wearing the right clothes for the right occasion. You need to be aware of how you present yourself in private, public, informal, and formal settings. It is also realizing what your appearance—cleanliness, neatness, clothing choices, and deportment—says about you. How is your posture? What does your facial expression convey to others? Can your tone of voice be misunderstood or taken the wrong way?


Using polite phrases and respectful language, apologizing and accepting apologies, extending common courtesies to others, table manners, and self-awareness and grooming your personal image are all important components to basic manners. Though we covered these basics rather quickly, remember that we were laying the foundation that we will be building on in future articles.