It is hard enough to know the ins and outs of proper etiquette in good times, but now -- during the worst recession since the Great Depression -- it can be almost impossible.
What is the right thing to say to a friend who has just been laid off? How do you say no to a dinner invitation when you can't afford a night out? And what should you do if it's your best friend's birthday, but you don't have money for a gift?
To find out how to handle these sometimes sticky situations, we turned to the expert -- Nancy Mitchell, otherwise known as "The Etiquette Advocate."
Question: How have the rules changed when it comes to how we deal with each other?
Nancy Mitchell: The golden rule of etiquette has always been that we put the needs and the comforts of other people before our own, and now that is just doubly important. We need to be more sensitive, we need to think before we speak, we need to think before we make plans, and just consider the circumstances that some of our friends and family are in right now.
Question: What's the biggest etiquette mistake people make in this economy?
Nancy Mitchell: I think the biggest etiquette mistake in this recession is when people are not sensitive to the feelings of someone who is in a bad situation ... and are being too obvious about the charity that they're giving someone. Often people don't want to accept charity; they don't want to be considered the charity case. So I think you really need to read the signals of friends and family members who may be in that situation. You don't want to come out and say something like, "Oh, come on, don't worry about money. I'll pay for this." That makes people uncomfortable. What you might do if you have a reluctant recipient is to go out and buy a gift certificate. Put your own name on it, call that friend and say, "I have a gift certificate to a great restaurant. I've always wanted to try it, come along with me. Please, be my guest."
Question: How should we approach a friend or family member who has lost their job?
Nancy Mitchell: You do want to approach someone who has been laid off in bad times by not ignoring the situation. Don't pretend that you don't know if you do. You don't have to say how you heard, you don't have to go into great detail, you'll just say, "It's so good to see you, I just heard about what happened at your company, I want you to know I would be happy to help in any way I can." Just open the door to the discussion and then leave it at that. That's when you start reading signals. Does the person want to talk about it? Are they very open? Are they very private? You'll get signals from people. You either continue with the conversation or it's dropped like a bomb.
Question: What is the number one thing people who are unemployed should remember when it comes to etiquette?
Nancy Mitchell: I think it is not to cut themselves off from other people, not to be embarrassed about their situation, not to hole up somewhere and just expect they will come back out of the hole once they are re-employed and expect everything to be the same. They have to maintain relationships, they have to stay in touch and frankly, the more people who know about someone's situation, the better it is for them. They're networking.
There are so many ways to get together, which is the most important thing. Call a friend, say, "Let's take a walk, let's go to a lecture at the library, let's order pizza." There are all kinds of ways you can stay connected with people.
Question: How do you walk that line between networking and turning someone off?
Nancy Mitchell: I think the number one networking skill -- and this goes for good times and bad -- is when you walk into a room of people, you are thinking about other people before you're thinking about yourself. Just like that golden rule of etiquette, that's the golden rule of networking. You'll be so much more successful. You're trying to build relationships, you're trying to connect with people -- let them get to know you. Secondary is that you need a job. Sometime in the conversation it will be your turn to speak, and you say, "I am a victim of the recession. I've lost my job, I'm looking, these are my skills." You have that elevator speech ready, but that is not the only topic of conversation, and that is not the first thing out of your mouth.
Question: How OK is it to talk about money now? And has that changed?
Nancy Mitchell: Talking about money has always been an indelicate topic. Even in good times, it is not something people should talk about. You shouldn't be bragging about how much money you have to spend, or what you make, or what you paid for your car or what you paid for your cruise. Bragging at any time is an ugly trait, but right now it's particularly bad to do that sort of thing.
Question: What if you need to save money and you're being invited out to dinners or events that you cannot afford? Is it OK to talk about money in that regard?
Nancy Mitchell: It is better to be open about talking about money, yes, if you're the guest. If you're invited to go somewhere or you're included in a group that's going out to dinner, it's best to be up front about it and say, "You know, I'd really like to go but I'm on a tight budget right now. What restaurant were you thinking about going to? I have to make sure that that's in my budget right now." So yes, in those situations, it is good to talk about it.
When you accept an invitation, assume that you are going to pay your way, so choose those very, very carefully. And when you do have a group going to restaurants in these times, don't assume that four people are going to split the bill four ways and evenly. That's putting some people at a disadvantage, because there might be a friend in that group who is being thrifty right now. They may have ordered a salad and an iced tea knowing that they could afford that. Other people are ordering three courses and alcohol. Suddenly the bill comes and you split it evenly four ways, the person who was on the budget is going to be hurt. And be sensitive about that. Say, "Let's ask for separate checks." That's going to be the rule of thumb from now on. Restaurants are going to understand that, servers are going to understand that, friends are going to understand that.
Question: How should you handle gift-giving when you may not be able to afford it?
Nancy Mitchell: If you are in a situation where you can't give a gift -- let's say you're out of work, you're on a tight budget, you've been invited to an event -- don't say you can't go to the event because you know you can't give a gift. There are so many ways people can give of their time, of their talent. You can attend an event, you can give a card with wonderful thoughts in it and you can say, "Here's my IOU to help you build a flower bed, paint a room, de-clutter your house, drive your kids, pet-sit, whatever." There's so many ways that we can give of ourselves.