40 Etiquette Mistakes You’re Too Old to Make After 40
It's time to talk about your email responses.
Whether you’re in a rush and forget to say “thank you” to the barista making your coffee or you inadvertently grab the wrong fork at a formal dinner, everyone’s guilty of making an etiquette error or two from time to time. And while some etiquette mistakes can be chalked up to youthful ignorance, by the time you’re in your 40s, it’s imperative you not only know the rules, but follow them to a T.
“Everyone needs to be aware of their surroundings and say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘excuse me,’ and ‘I’m sorry,'” says etiquette expert Karen Thomas, founder of Karen Thomas Etiquette. “Those are the golden rules that need to be followed every day.” But that’s hardly the end of them. If you want to be lauded for your politesse, it’s time to start cleaning up these etiquette mistakes you’re making without realizing it.
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. “Your host or hostess is accommodating you, sharing their home and food at their expense—bringing a gift is showing recognition of their effort on your behalf,” 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.
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 error.
“It shows you value your own time over that other person you are meeting,” says Lawlor.
Not thanking your host
Even if you brought a gift 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 Lawlor.
Going into excessive detail when excusing yourself
After 40, you’re undeniably a full-fledged adult and definitely don’t need anyone’s permission to leave the dinner table. That said, many people find themselves feeling awkward about doing so, and compensate by going into too much detail about why exactly they’re getting up. Keep it to yourself, get up discreetly, and return as quickly as you can.
Being stingy with tips
While tipping culture can be debated ad nauseam, if you live in or are visiting a country where tipping is customary, there’s no excuse to avoid it. Servers are frequently paid less than minimum wage and tips are how they pay their bills. So unless there’s a serious problem with your service, a 20 percent tip is customary (but your server would always be grateful for more than that).
We’ve all listened to someone we wish would stop talking, but actually shushing them? That’s a serious etiquette error, 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.
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 And 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.”
Not covering your sneeze
Sneezes may sneak up on you from time to time, but there’s no excuse not to cover your mouth and nose when you feel them coming. Not only is neglecting to do so a major etiquette error, it can easily spread your illness to others. When in doubt, sneeze into your elbow—it’s less likely to transfer those germs than using your hand.
Not saying “excuse me” while trying to get past someone
While being shoved against strangers on a crowded sidewalk or train 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.'”
Not walking single-file on a crowded sidewalk
That bliss you’re enjoying with a new significant other may make you want to hold hands wherever you go. However, doing so on a busy sidewalk is always impolite. Thomas says that, while it’s okay to walk hand-in-hand when there’s enough room on the street, the second someone else is coming, or other people are trying to get by, you should switch to single-file. (There are, of course, certain exceptions: people who need assistance walking, individuals walking with caretakers, and parents holding children’s hands.)
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.”
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. “I know that a lot of people don’t really feel that a text is acceptable in business, but again, 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 “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 it’s clear to the other person, 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 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 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. In fact, it’s a major etiquette error 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. “As far as business goes, when you’re in the office, you should have it off. You should also have an appropriate ringtone, not some screaming rock jam.”
Responding with emojis
Sure, sending a smiley face when someone asks you how you are may seem cute and coy to you, but to others, it can convey a lack of respect. Unless you have a close enough relationship with someone for them to know that’s not the case, make sure you respond clearly to messages using actual words or you risk coming across as rude.
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.
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” says Thomas. “Your undivided attention should be given to the barista, server, or clerk. The phone call should never interfere with the transaction.”
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. “The dining experience should be a great experience for all involved. Be mindful to keep your mouth closed when chewing,” according to Dupree. Finish chewing, swallow, and then join in the chat—and if the moment has passed, so be it.”
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 Thomas. 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.
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. However, in between courses, go ahead and rest them to your heart’s content. “If the salad comes and we’re eating, no elbows on the table,” asks Thomas. “Once the wait staff takes it away, we can rest our elbows on the table until the next course comes.”
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 looked at as overly casual, and, as such, rude.
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, 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 error. “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 famished you are, reaching across a 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 error? “Because your personal space is being invaded by the reacher,” Thomas says. “It’s also a germ situation: My hand and my arm are now invading the space in which you’re consuming food.”
Overdoing it with the PDA
While giving your partner a peck on the lips or a hug in public is fine, having a full-blown make-out session when you’re in the company of others simply isn’t acceptable behavior. You’re not hormonal teenagers anymore—whatever type of affection you’re eager to show can wait until you’re somewhere private.
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 error anyway.
“Talking before the movie? Absolutely. Once the lights are dim, even it’s the previews? All talking should cease,” says Thomas. “If you need to say something to someone after that point, it should be in a very light whisper and not loud enough for the rest of the theater to hear.”
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 ranks this behavior at an 8 out of 10 on the rudeness scale. “This is simply not being self-aware.”
Cutting in line
You knew this was rude in kindergarten, so why would cutting in line be any less of an etiquette error 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.
We all know the feeling: You’re trying to get your point across to a friend or colleague when, out of nowhere, they cut you off to start making a point of their own. Yes, gender does seem to come into play in terms of who’s on the receiving end of the interrupting—one Stanford University study revealed that, out of 48 interruptions in a conversation between male and female participants, 46 were a man interrupting a woman. But no matter the perpetrator, there’s no denying it’s a serious etiquette faux pas.
“People listen to respond, they don’t listen to hear. 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.”
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, ask the people you’re around if they mind if you vape.
Leaving your hat on indoors
Whether you skipped your morning shower or are feeling a little self-conscious about your thinning hair, there are plenty of reasons you might want to keep your hat on. However, if you’re not taking it off indoors, 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.
Dressing too casually for public events
You may think those dark jeans are dressy enough, but if you’re not dressing to the specifications of the invitation for an event, you’re committing a serious etiquette error. “Dressing right shows respect for those around you and self-respect for your own image,” says Lawlor. If the invite has a dress code on it, abide by it, and if not, make sure to ask your host before showing up underdressed.
Drinking past your limit
Can you have a glass of wine or a cocktail at a work event or wedding? Of course! That said, if you’re imbibing to the point where you’ve lost control, you’re making a serious etiquette error.
Using the last of something without replacing it
Unless you want to incur the ire of the people you live with, make sure that when you used 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. “Whatever you use the last of, 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.”
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. There are these things in there called mirrors, and they should be used,” says Thomas. “That goes for putting on lipstick, flossing, brushing hair, or using a toothpick.”
Engaging in one-sided conversations
Everyone’s been guilty of dominating a chat at one point or another, but doing so on a regular basis is a critical etiquette error. And this doesn’t just apply to long talks—if you’re speaking to someone and they ask you how you are, return the favor or you risk being viewed as impolite.
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 embarrassing etiquette error in this situation? “Whomever arrives at the door first holds it for the people behind them, regardless of who it is,” suggests Thomas.
Luckily, these days, it’s expected that both men and women abide by this rule. “It’s not a gender thing. It’s a nicety and not something that should fall to the wayside in society,” says Thomas.
Pointing at people
There are plenty of good ways to indicate who you’re talking about, but pointing shouldn’t be among them. In fact, doing so is a pretty major etiquette faux pas. Pointing at someone can make them feel as though they’re being gossiped about, even if that’s not the case—and since etiquette largely exists to make others feel comfortable, that’s an undeniable error.
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,” says Thomas. “I think technology has made it easier to be gracious, and therefore, the Three Thank You Rule should be in place: in person, via email, and via a handwritten note.”
Neglecting to send “thank you” notes
While it may seem like an old-fashioned practice, etiquette still dictates that you should send a thank you note after receiving a gift. A text or an email is also fine—just make sure you acknowledge that you’ve received the gift and express your genuine gratitude for it. And if you’re eager to be a more grateful person, discover these 20 Science-Backed Benefits of Gratitude.
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