Business Etiquette for the Holidays

Holiday cheer comes once a year, but good impressions can last a lifetime.

December 1, 2006

This festive time of year offers no shortage of opportunities to network, celebrate with colleagues, and show your appreciation to clients with holiday cards and gifts. Yet with all of these cheery occasions comes the potential for etiquette mishaps. Here, manners experts and real estate pros answer some common questions and provide tips that will help you make a great impression this holiday season.

Sending Cards: Is E-mail Acceptable?

It seems everyone in the real estate business is connected to their computers. So it would certainly be convenient — and affordable — to send electronic holiday cards to clients and colleagues. But is that acceptable?

“E-mail cards are being done a lot,” says Beverly Langford, author of “The Etiquette Edge: The Unspoken Rules for Business Success” and a principal of LMA Communication in Atlanta. “But there are people who would think that’s the easy way out, so it depends on your audience. I wouldn’t send e-cards to everybody. But something is better than nothing, and sooner is better than later.”

Charles Price, a broker with Coldwell Banker Mountain West Real Estate in Salem, Ore., says it’s always better to do cards the old-fashioned way. People love getting mail during the holidays, and it will make your message more cherished. “Handwritten notes are like gold,” he says. “It’s one of the best things you can do. You need to stay in contact with people at every opportunity, and the holidays are a season where you can market yourself with cards and gifts.”

Gift-Giving Dilemmas: What to Buy?

Shopping for your valued clients and most trusted colleagues can be tough. You know them on a professional level, but do you really know what they’d enjoy as a gift? Luckily, there are plenty of options that will please just about anyone. (Check out REALTOR® Magazine’s holiday gift guide for ideas.)

Edible gifts are always a safe bet, Price says. “Food or wine — if the client drinks — make appropriate gifts during the holidays because there’s a lot of entertaining going on,” he says. But any thoughtful present will do.

“A doctor and his wife recently closed on a house, coming here from Southern California in the middle of our rainy season. So I gave them two automatic umbrellas from Nordstrom, and a $50 bottle of wine to the doctor who referred them to me. It’s good to show your gratitude.”

If shopping for clients who just bought or sold a house, use the price of the listing as a guide, Langford suggests. “If you’ve just sold a $3 million house, you might want to do something like a lavish gift basket from Godiva.”

When it comes to your broker, what gift is best? Peggy Post of the Emily Post Institute Inc. in Burlington, Vt., says it’s not necessary to give gifts to bosses, in general. “You don’t want to look like you’re currying favor,” she says. “But if you feel like you really want to do something, you can bake something or buy something very simple. Another way to handle it is to get several people to pitch in for something.”

If a colleague buys you a gift, but you didn’t buy him one, don’t fret. Just graciously thank him for it, Langford says. It’s not necessary to reciprocate, but you may want to make a note to yourself to get something for that person next year.

Going to the Party: What to Wear, Bring?

So, you’ve received an invitation to a holiday party. Now comes the tough decision — what to wear. Don’t make assumptions, especially if you’ve never been to that party before. “If the invitation doesn’t state the attire, call and ask,” Langford says. You don’t want to show up underdressed to a black-tie event. Likewise, “If it’s strictly a professional party, don’t go in sparkling like a Christmas tree.”

To arrive to a party at someone’s home in style, there’s one accessory you can’t forget: a gift for the host. Post recommends a small box of high-quality chocolates. “Or, you could bring something you’ve made, like muffins for the hostess’ breakfast the next morning, a decoration for the tree, or bulbs if they’re gardeners,” she says. “Just something simple to denote your gratefulness for the invitation.”

One thing to avoid bringing: cut flowers, Langford says. The flowers may be pretty and smell great, but the host will have to abandon her guests in order to arrange the flowers into a vase. After the party, a thank you note to the host will be well appreciated.

Conversation Starters: What’s Off Limits?

As a real estate practitioner, you probably have no problem striking up conversation in social situations. However, at a work-related party, you should make an effort to veer away from “shop talk” and include spouses in the conversation. “Talk about noncontroversial current events, holiday plans, or people’s families,” Langford suggests. “Ask open-door questions that let the other person talk.”

To be on the safe side, avoid talking about issues that may lead to heated debates or get too personal. If you plan to broach more touchy topics, such as politics or religion, “know who you’re talking to and whether they’ll enjoy a spirited conversation,” Price says. “You need to be careful not to get into an argument that leads to hurt feelings.”

Price also adds that you should keep the conversation positive, and never gossipy. “You should never say anything negative about other colleagues in a public situation,” Price says.

Making a Toast: What Should I Say?

Whether you’re moved to make a toast at a friend’s party or you’re hosting a gala and would like to say a few words, keep a few pointers in mind.

For example, the host or hostess offers the first toast at a formal occasion such as a dinner party. Around a dinner table with friends, a guest can propose the first toast and often does so to thank the host for bringing everyone together, according to the Emily Post Institute.

Keep it short and to the point, focusing your remarks on the event being celebrated. A joke or short story is OK, as long as it’s clean. For a boost of confidence, write out what you wish to say and then practice it ahead of time, the Institute recommends.

Too Many Places to Be: How to Decide?

As party invitations start rolling in, you realize just how popular you are. Unfortunately, the season is short and parties inevitably will conflict with one another. If invited to several occasions on the same day, what should you do?

“Go to all three,” Langford says. “People understand during the holidays that you’ll have many commitments. I’d much rather guests come by for 30 minutes and leave than say you can’t come because you’ve got to go to another party.”

Post, on the other hand, says you may decline two of the invitations by simply saying, “Sorry, I can’t make it.” No explanation is necessary. What’s key, she says, is that if you say yes to one person, you honor that commitment even if a more desirable invitation arrives later.

“You could try to attend two of the parties,” Post adds. “But if the invitation is to a sit-down dinner, you need to sit and stay.”

Regardless of whether you go or not, you absolutely must RSVP. If you’ve ever planned a party before, you know how frustrating it is to be in the dark about who is coming.

Stating the Obvious: Watch What You Drink

Among all holiday etiquette faux pas, having too much alcohol to drink always tops the list, experts say. Your professional reputation and your friendships are at stake.

“I had a cocktail party one afternoon, and somebody broke a Waterford flute and didn’t bother to tell me,” Langford recalls. “I found it stuck in a corner afterwards. I was really surprised, given the people who were invited.”

To avoid embarrassing situations, either don’t drink alcohol or limit your intake. The days of work parties where coworkers let down their hair, got drunk, and ended up wearing lampshades on their heads are out of style, the Emily Post Institute says.

Learn More

There are plenty of Web sites that offer etiquette tips. Here’s a sampling:
Holiday Gifting Etiquette:
Business Greeting Card Etiquette:
Holiday Etiquette: Emily Post Institute
Holiday Etiquette: ETICON Inc. Etiquette Consultant