40 Etiquette Mistakes You Need to Stop Making by Age 40
By the time you reach your fourth decade, you need A+ manners.
We're all guilty of making an etiquette mistake from time to time, whether we accidentally forget to say "please" when placing our morning coffee order or fail to adequately cover our mouth when we sneeze. However, by the time you hit your 40s, not abiding by the rules when it comes to politeness doesn't come across as quirky or absentminded—it's interpreted as downright rude.
"Etiquette isn't about snobbishness," explains Marie Betts-Johnson, president of the International Protocol Institute of California, which specializes in business etiquette and diplomacy. "It's about inherent respect for everyone." So, before you accidentally burn bridges with your bad behavior, it's time to learn—and remedy—these etiquette mistakes you can't afford to keep making after 40.
Not RSVPing in a timely manner
That "maybe" option when replying to an event on Facebook doesn't actually excuse you from giving your host a definitive answer about attending their party.
"There is a lot of effort that goes into planning an event…so you want to be a considerate and respectful guest by responding to the RSVP," says Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of Beyond Etiquette, an etiquette and communications training firm. So, how quickly should you be offering a confirmation? Tsai suggests responding no more than 48 hours later.
Showing up late
While everyone gets stuck in traffic or takes longer leaving the house than they initially intended from time to time, being frequently late—especially if you don't tell the person you're meeting that you won't be on time—is an undeniable etiquette mistake.
"Showing up late tells others that your time is more valuable than theirs," says Tsai. If you are running late, it's important to inform anyone who may be waiting for you, and to thank them for their patience upon arrival.
Not bringing gifts to parties
Even if you don't have a ton of disposable income, showing up empty-handed to an event is always an error in terms of etiquette.
"When you're invited to an event or dinner party, it's important to bring a gift as a token of appreciation to your host," says Tsai. However, that doesn't mean you have to bring wine, especially in cases where doing so wouldn't be appropriate—like to a child's party or to a host in recovery, for instance. In those cases, Tsai says a scented candle is always a safe bet.
Not introducing others
You may assume that every member of your inner circle knows one another, but that's not always the case. "When you fail to introduce everyone in your party, it doesn't make each person feel valued and it also sends a message to the other person that they aren't worth knowing," says Toni Dupree, founder of Etiquette & Style By Dupree, a Houston-based etiquette and finishing school. "When in doubt, always play it safe and introduce people who might not know each other to avoid making anyone feel left out."
And not standing when being introduced
While there are, of course, exceptions to this rule (nobody's going to think it's rude if you stay seated if you have mobility issues, for example), generally speaking, if you're being introduced to someone, etiquette dictates that you stand.
Though Tsai says that women used to be expected to remain seated during introductions, today, standing is considered good practice, regardless of gender. "When you stand to greet someone, it not only shows that you are eager to meet and welcome them," it's also an easy way to convey respect, she explains.
Not thanking your host
Even if you brought a gift, stood when you were introduced, and were an otherwise delightful (and prompt) attendee, not thanking your host after an event can leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth. "Your host has provided you with an experience and even if providing a gift, following up the next day to express appreciation is a thoughtful, nice touch and the right thing to do," says etiquette expert Norah Lawlor, who contributed the forward to Manners That Matter Most: The Easy Guide to Etiquette at Home and in the World.
Neglecting to send "thank you" notes in general
While it may seem like an old-fashioned practice, etiquette still dictates that you should send a thank-you note after receiving a gift.
"Don't forget to send a hand-written 'thank-you' card" after receiving a gift, says Betts-Johnson. "It's not old-fashioned—it's a powerful tool that makes you memorable."
Keeping your phone on the table during dinner
Unless you're waiting for someone to go into labor or are a doctor who might be called into a last-minute surgery, keeping your phone on the table when you're having dinner with someone is undeniably rude. Doing so only shows your dining companion that you're not willing to give them your undivided attention—something that probably doesn't make your friends feel great, and definitely won't land you a second date if you do it during a romantic meal.
As difficult a habit as it may be, Betts-Johnson says that, in the interest of etiquette, it's important to "put that iPhone away and learn to have real conversations and build relationships."
Leaving your napkin on the table instead of in your lap
What's the first thing you should do when you sit down at a meal? Put your napkin on your lap, according to etiquette expert Karen Thomas, founder of Karen Thomas Etiquette. In fact, not doing so immediately is a serious etiquette mistake.
"The napkin should be placed in your lap immediately upon sitting, even before other people get there, with the folded side pointing up toward your waist," says Thomas.
Sipping your drink before you've acknowledged a toast
While it may seem like you're fine taking a sip of that champagne once someone's toast has finished, doing so is actually an etiquette faux pas, according to etiquette expert Jacquelyn Youst, owner of the Pennsylvania Academy of Protocol.
Before you raise your glass to your lips, "return the toast, and then you can sip your drink," she says.
Eating with your elbows on the table
If you want to seem more polite in an instant, make sure your elbows aren't resting on the table when you're eating. "If the salad comes and we're eating, no elbows on the table," says Thomas. However, in between courses, go ahead and rest them to your heart's content. "Once the wait staff takes it away, we can rest our elbows on the table until the next course comes," Thomas adds.
So, why is this considered a mistake in the first place? Thomas says that, because meals were once considered formal events, the slouched posture that goes along with resting your elbows on the table was viewed as overly casual, and, as such, rude.
Talking with food in your mouth
You might be excited to join in on a conversation, but if you're mid-bite, you're better off waiting. "Be mindful to keep your mouth closed when chewing," says Dupree. "Finish chewing, swallow, and then join in the chat—and if the moment has passed, so be it."
Using the wrong utensils
If looking at the array of knives and forks in front of you at a dinner party has you breaking out in a cold sweat like Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman, you're not alone. While using the wrong knives and forks is an undeniable faux pas, the rule here is simple: Work your way from the outside in. Your salad fork should be to the left of your dinner fork, and the knife to be used for earlier courses should be to the right of your dinner knife, which should be directly to the right of your plate.
Passing just the salt
As strange as it may seem, if you're asked to pass the salt and you don't pass the pepper as well, you're actually committing an etiquette mistake. "In etiquette terms, the salt and pepper are married," explains Thomas. "People just don't know that they're supposed to be passed together, but it is something people should be aware of."
Reaching across the table
No matter how much you want to avoid bothering other guests, reaching across the table to grab something during a meal is always a serious etiquette blunder. "If it's far enough away that you have to stand to reach it, you shouldn't do so and you should ask instead," says Thomas. And, she explains, if you're the one passing food, you should pass it to your right.
So, why is reaching across a table such an etiquette mistake? "Because your personal space is being invaded by the reacher," explains Thomas. "It's also a germ situation: My hand and my arm are now invading the space in which you're consuming food."
Starting your meal before others
Just because you're hungry doesn't mean you should dig into your meal before the rest of the table has their food. "Do not begin eating until everyone has been served," says Youst. Once everyone has their food and any pre-meal rituals are out of the way (like toasts or prayers), you can dive in.
Pointing at people
Sure, it may feel strange to go into extreme detail describing the person you're talking about when you could easily gesture in their direction, but pointing at someone, even if you think you're being subtle about it, is an absolute don't in the etiquette world.
Noting that the gesture can come across as accusatory, Tsai suggests a simple alternative: "Gesture with an open palm instead—it's much more welcoming and neutral."
Boarding an elevator without letting others off first
"Knowing the proper way to enter and exit an elevator should be learned by the time you are a teenager," says Youst. However, for those who need a refresher, the rules are simple: Stand to the side, making sure not to obstruct the doors while letting everyone off the elevator, then board in an orderly fashion, with the people standing closest to the doors entering first.
Not holding the door
Holding the door can be a tricky thing: While it's polite to hold it for the person behind you, stand there for too long and you'll become the de facto doorman. So, how should you avoid an etiquette mistake in this common situation? "Whoever arrives at the door first holds it for the people behind them," suggests Thomas.
However, that only applies to whoever is directly behind you, and only if they can get there by the count of three—holding the door for someone 30 feet away will only make them feel obligated to rush, and is not actually considered polite.
Not saying "excuse me" while trying to get past someone
While maneuvering through crowds on a sidewalk or subway car is never a pleasant experience, that doesn't mean your manners should fall by the wayside. Not saying "excuse me" "is absolutely one of the rudest things somebody can do," says Thomas. "We're all in a hurry. What that says is that 'I'm more important than you and I don't need to be kind.'"
Ordering with "Can I?"
While ordering food may generally be a brief transaction, that doesn't mean it's ever acceptable to make it a rude one. "You should say 'I would like' not 'Can I have?'" explains Youst of the proper language for ordering. "May I please have" is an acceptable alternative, she notes.
Or ordering while on your phone
Just because you got bored on the line at Starbucks doesn't mean it's ever okay to have a phone call at the counter while simultaneously trying to order. "Your undivided attention should be given to the barista, server, or clerk," says Thomas. "The phone call should never interfere with the transaction."
We've all listened to someone we wish would stop talking, but actually shushing them? That's a serious etiquette mistake, according to Thomas.
"Shushing is a huge faux pas," she says. "Nobody should be stopped when they're talking, with the exception of a teacher quieting a student." If you want to speak, or disagree with what someone is saying, simply wait your turn and get your point across when they're done.
We all know the feeling: You're trying to explain something to a colleague or friend when, out of nowhere, they cut you off to start making a point of their own. But no matter how often this has happened to you, there's no excuse for repeating this egregiously bad behavior.
"People are just excited and they want to get their point across, and they don't realize that it's rude, but it is," says Thomas. "They should really stop and listen when the other person is speaking, take a moment to digest what they've said, and wait to respond instead of interrupting."
Not following-up after interviews
You've landed an interview for your dream job, you feel like you nailed it, and yet, you never hear back. What could have gone wrong? According to Thomas, one of the biggest etiquette mistakes people make in a job setting is neglecting what she dubs the "Three Thank You Rule." "Thank them in the interview, thank them after the interview via email, and then again in writing," she suggests.
Neglecting to respond to emails in a timely manner
Your inbox may feel like a veritable black hole, but that doesn't mean you can leave emails un-replied-to without coming across as rude. "It leaves the sender guessing," says Lawlor. Plus, "they could infer a particular answer due to not responding."
Not using appropriate spelling and grammar in professional communications
When you send an email full of errors or impenetrable digital speak, you're asking its recipient to do extra legwork on your behalf, so it's in your best interest to give it a quick spell check before you hit send, says Betts-Johnson. "You will be judged, so read it over one more time before sending it," she suggests.
Leaving your read receipts on
Avoiding this surprising social etiquette faux pas is as simple as checking the settings on your phone. While it may seem minor, leaving on read receipts—particularly when you don't respond to people right away—can be perceived as seriously rude, as is the case with email.
"Reading a message without responding for more than a day, even in a personal setting, is really unacceptable," says Thomas. "If you read their text, you need to get back to them. The rule is within a day in personal settings and in business, it's two to three days."
Answering the phone with something other than "hello"
While your personal phone greeting may amuse you, it's in your best interest to take a page from Adele's playbook and get used to saying a simple "hello." Starting a conversation with a proper greeting conveys respect and will help you ensure that you're not accidentally giving a casual response to an important caller. "Proper phone etiquette states that there should be a greeting, whether that's 'hello' or 'good afternoon,'" says Thomas.
And hanging up before saying "goodbye"
Just because you're under the impression a phone call has ended doesn't necessarily mean that the person on the other end of the line realizes it. If you're ready to end a call, make sure that's clear and say "goodbye" before you hang up or you might find yourself inadvertently cutting off the person you've been talking to.
Leaving your headphones in while talking
Your Bluetooth headset or AirPods may practically feel like part of your body at this point, but if you're having a face-to-face conversation with someone, it's essential to take that headpiece or those headphones out of your year. When you don't, Thomas says, "it leaves the other party unsure as to whether you care about what they have to say—or if you even heard them."
Leaving your phone's sound on
There are few things more annoying than having to listen to someone else's phone blast music or the sound effects from a game. In fact, it's a major etiquette mistake to have your sound on when you're in public. When your phone rings, "you're to do one of two things: Answer it immediately or turn it down," says Thomas. "When you're in the office, you should have it off."
Talking in movie theaters
By the time you hit 40, odds are you know that movie theaters aren't an appropriate place to carry on long conversations, but that doesn't stop countless people from committing this etiquette mistake anyway.
"Talking before the movie? Absolutely. Once the lights are dim, even if it's the previews? All talking should cease," says Thomas. And if you absolutely need to tell your companion something during the movie, "it should be in a very light whisper and not loud enough for the rest of the theater to hear," she says.
Putting your bag or feet on an unoccupied seat
There are few things more annoying than getting on a crowded train and finding that the seat you were hoping to find is being occupied by a purse—or, worse yet, someone's feet. "When other people enter and the space needs to be occupied, you should move [your bag] immediately," says Thomas, who dubs this behavior at an "8 out of 10" on the rudeness scale.
Cutting in line
You knew this was rude in kindergarten, so why would cutting in line be any less of an etiquette mistake later in life?
This is especially true in retail settings. If a new register opens up, but you're at the back of the existing line, that doesn't give you a free pass to hop to the front of the new one.
Just because you don't consider your e-cigarette to be the same as a regular tobacco one doesn't mean other people enjoy being surrounded by its vapor. "The perception that e-cigarettes are different to cigarettes seems to encourage the user to think that they do not have to be considerate of others in their use," says Lawlor. When in doubt, go outdoors—or, at the very least, ask the people around you if they mind before you smoke up.
Leaving your hat on indoors
Whether you skipped your morning shower or are feeling a little self-conscious about your hair, there are plenty of reasons you might want to keep your hat on indoors. However, in doing so, you're being ruder than you might expect. "For the gentleman, wearing a hat indoors is not acceptable," says Thomas. "Gentlemen should remove the hat, even in a casual restaurant. The only time a baseball hat should not come off for a gentleman is at the baseball park." However, the rules can be amended slightly for women: "Ladies can get away with wearing their fashionable hat indoors, like at a wedding or a church," says Thomas. But elsewhere? It's a no-go.
Dressing too casually for public events
If you're not dressing to the specifications of the invitation for an event, you're committing a serious etiquette mistake. Abide by the dress code listed, and if the invite doesn't have one, make sure to ask your host before showing up underdressed. "Dressing right shows respect for those around you and self-respect for your own image," says Lawlor.
Grooming in public
Whether you're trying to look good for a date or just have something from dinner stuck in your teeth, there's never an appropriate time to groom yourself in public, and it's a habit you should break as soon as possible. "Any personal grooming should be done in the bathroom," says Thomas, who notes that this includes applying makeup, brushing hair, or even using a toothpick.
Using the last of something without replacing it
Unless you want to incur the ire of the people you live with or work with, make sure that when you use the last of something, you replace it in an expeditious manner. Using the last of a product and not replacing it is "unacceptable" in terms of etiquette, according to Thomas. "Whether it's toilet paper or ketchup, you should replace it," she explains. "It goes against the very nature of etiquette to not do so." And for more bad behaviors to skip, here are the 50 Things You Do Every Day That Annoy Other People.
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