It’s a question I get asked all the time – what is the difference between business and social etiquette? Here is the initial way I would answer that: business etiquette is based on your position within a business relationship (think of where you would be on the org chart), and is gender neutral; social etiquette is based on your social standing (a queen would have precedence over a countess, a woman over a man, and someone older over someone younger), and gender plays a very significant role.

Clear as mud? Some real life examples might help illustrate more around how the rules apply.

For example, in a business situation, a man wouldn’t help a woman put on her jacket or pull out her chair the way he would if it were a social occasion. In a business situation, a woman would hold the door open for her male client but would not do so in a social situation.

If that was easy for you, let’s increase the degree of difficulty. Let’s say you are a young, female advertising VP and your client is an older gentleman. Based on what I initially said, you should be the one opening the door for your client. What do you do if your client will not allow it, and instead insists on opening the door for you? Part of what I teach in my individual and group training sessions is the idea is that etiquette rules exist as a starting point, and that practice makes perfect – knowing and working through what the possible scenarios are in advance will have you prepared for these little wrinkles of real life.

Let’s change up the situation once more for good measure. You are now a male boss taking your team out for the holiday dinner. In a social setting, a man walks behind a woman when she walks up a set of stairs in case she falls – it may seem archaic, but I appreciate the gentlemanly thought behind it. In a business situation that may not go over so well, and may in fact cause some confusion – many people would expect the most high profile member of the team or office to go first. What would you do and why?

I think it’s also important to stress that having etiquette training will help you understand someone else’s behaviour, and to smooth over any potential awkwardness there. Maybe your client is waiting for you to walk on the outside, nearest to the street, yet as a lady, you were always taught that was where the man walks. Or what if someone is insulted when you try to help her with her jacket – even though your mom always taught you that is what a gentleman does. Conversation can often clear up confusion, and having a solid etiquette foundation can give you the confidence to open up the topic. That knowledge can guide you through the grey areas of navigating between the worlds of business and social situations. Particularly in a relaxed city like Vancouver, knowing the finer points of both social and business etiquette will allow you to transition seamlessly through all kinds of situations.

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