#edGY: In a business of awkward moments

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SOCIAL SITUATIONS can be awkward. All sorts of questions and anxieties arise: Am I presenting myself well? Am I conducting myself appropriately? Did I inadvertently offend someone?

It’s a battlefield for a number of us.

Many entering the workforce can relate to these anxieties, which is precisely where Penang-born entrepreneur Hor Phooi Sin steps in.

She founded Etiquette Academy Asia, a grooming coach for Malaysia’s future workforce, last November. She aims to help people fine-tune their soft skills and business etiquette, believing that this translates into how one represents his future organisation.

Hor is a certified etiquette consultant with years of professional experience under her belt in both the private and public sectors in Australia, China, Malaysia and Singapore.

As a training provider, most of Hor’s clients are universities and corporations. On average, her team conducts three to four training sessions a month.

“Some groups need grooming, so I need to bring in make-up artists. Some want to do it indoors and others outdoors at networking events. Some want it for dining, so we’ll have a meal and I’ll coach them.”

The price of the courses depends on what is needed and the size of the group, but it is generally in the thousands of ringgit. Hor says her clients can seek reimbursement from the Human Resources Development Fund.

On why she decided to embark on this business, Hor says it was because she had seen so many moments that turned awkward simply because people were not aware of the finer points of cross-cultural communication and social context.

For example, writing on someone’s name card in front of the person can be considered rude to some. “Some cultures, like the Japanese, want you to treat their business cards with respect,” Hor explains.  

In fact, business cards have great significance in Japan, where an individual is less important than the group to which he belongs, and business cards provide access to the owner’s identity.

“People neglect these things. They always train soft or leadership skills, which are important as well. But if they want to outdo the competition, they need to perform better, especially when meeting a client — that’s how you can get sales or impress your managers,” stresses Hor.  

She had returned to Malaysia from Hong Kong to work in her family’s textile machinery business prior to starting her business.

She shared the concept of Etiquette Academy with her father who immediately encouraged her to do it. In the US, certain companies and universities require training in etiquette but this has yet to catch on here.

Hor’s business began as a social entrepreneurship project and every weekend, she would coach students at universities and colleges around Malaysia. She went into the business full-time after corporations began to request her services.

To get her business going, Hor invested almost RM100,000 in, among others, travelling and equipment for her training. She says she broke even in the first half of this year after her corporate clientele grew.

• How to ace a job interview
First impressions can have a deep influence on the final hiring decision. How do you make a lasting impression on your interviewer? It involves verbal and non-verbal cues, Hor says.

1. Speak up
If you are soft-spoken, say what you need to clearly. Not being fluent in English should not affect your discussion. Just focus on the conversation.
English shouldn’t be a barrier when it comes to your performance at a meeting. In fact, you shouldn’t feel intimidated. The Ministry of Higher Education Blueprint 2013 to 2025 states that 55% of the population’s mother tongue is not English.

2. Ask the right questions
Asking questions about the salary, especially early on in the interview, is not appropriate. It may indicate that you are not well prepared. “You should know the market rate and it may show that you are more concerned about the pay than the job scope,” says Hor.  

What questions should you ask instead? Hor suggests asking questions about the job scope or the organisation’s culture: How does the organisation work? How big is the team?

“Ask some questions that are open-ended. Don’t give them a question to which the only answer is yes or no because they will think that you are not well prepared or that it’s a very simple question … Why are you asking me? Why are you wasting my time?”

3. Dress appropriately
Hor stresses the importance of wearing the right outfit when meeting your interviewer. If you dress too casually, the interviewer may think that you do not take the job interview seriously and are not eager to get the job.

You needn’t dress to kill for your first job interview — find something suitable and fitting.

Wearing appropriate attire will show that you understand the nature of the business and that you are familiar with the dress code of the field, which will perhaps increase your chances of getting the job.

Hor points out that you only need to invest in one set — a shirt and trousers that fit, not oversized or too tight. Women should wear a white or beige blouse with a black pencil skirt or trousers.

“In government departments, you need to dress more conservatively, long sleeves, perhaps. Also, for Muslimahs, I would suggest the right tudung and to avoid bling and glitter.”

Hor advises researching the culture of the organisation before going for an interview. “I’m not saying you must buy expensive stuff — you can go to Padini. After you get the job, go to work and find out the company’s dress code. Then go for what is comfortable.”

Also, remember not to hunch your back.

4. Don’t distract
During the interview, it is important to not distract the interviewer — the focus should be on the discussion, so avoid clothes that attract too much attention. For example, your neck tie colour and pattern should be conservative, explains Hor.

“Men should avoid a red tie. When you conduct an event and want to show that you have power and authority, that’s when you wear a red tie,” she adds. Barack Obama, for example, is commonly seen wearing a red tie when giving a speech.

“A red tie sends signals that you are a very strong personality and want to take control.”  

For women, light-coloured, transparent tops that expose the colour of their bra, which can be highly distracting and is best avoided, Hor says. She adds that the length of their skirt should be just three fingers above the knee. “If the skirt is shorter, when you sit down, it will ride up your thigh.

• How to shake hands with confidence
Many of us are accustomed to shaking hands when greeting others but it comes with its own set of unwritten rules.

Hor points out that a handshake can send various signals to the other person. To shake hands with confidence, your grip should be firm but not overly so. “We call it a dead fish if you do not use enough strength. A handshake can be too weak or too strong or your palms could be sweaty. You need to be well prepared.”

During a networking session, hold your drink with your left hand so that your right hand does not get wet. “Your right hand should always be dry and ready for a handshake,” Hor explains.

There are occasions where a handshake is not appropriate, for example between a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman. What do you do when you are not comfortable shaking hands with the opposite sex? The answer is simple: Explain your situation politely.

“Instead of forcing yourself to shake hands, you can explain to the other person why you can’t. Perhaps, your religion does not allow it,” says Hor.

• Knowing Netiquette
In cyberspace, etiquette becomes even more importance since there are few non-verbal cues to convey one’s intended message. Netiquette (network etiquette or Internet etiquette) is vital. Hor says there are a few things to keep in mind when communicating via email or text messaging.

1. Know when to CC and BCC
Some people have habit of CC-ing or BCC-ing everyone in the company.

“Some people like to show that they did a lot of work. So, they BCC the whole group. It’s quite annoying because the boss has so many emails to go through and he may not want to read it or find it unnecessary. Their colleagues might feel they are revealing confidential documents,” explains Hor, who refers to this behaviour as “email war”.

Rather than send your email to all the staff, CC the manager and he will decide if it’s important for everyone to be alerted.

2. No smileys here
They say there’s an emoticon for almost every facial expression. But for work-related correspondence, smiley faces or emoticons are a no-no.

“If I’m meeting a client I have never met before, a smiling face is inappropriate. This is especially so when going for an interview — sending a smiley face to the interviewer with an LOL,” she laughs.

3. Starting and ending
For starters, “dear” should be the default greeting for any first correspondence. “Hi” or “Hello” is a less formal form of address, although it has become more acceptable in business emails.  

What about the sign-off? “Use the automatic sign-off in your email. Don’t use ‘cheers!’” Hor says.

You need to be aware of the title of the person you are corresponding with as some of them can be very sensitive about it. “Miss” is for unmarried women while “Ms” is for a woman whose marital status is unknown. Hor’s general rule is that “Miss” is for young women and teenagers while “Ms” is for those who are 20 and above.

Also, some people are particular about their Dr or Professor title. “You need to check first,” says Hor.

She adds that if you can’t tell if a name belongs to a woman or a man, Google it.

• How to network effectively
We all have some level of social anxiety, especially in a social setting. Everyone is afraid of being socially awkward and once you realise that, there are ways to move forward with grace and confidence (or at least with less embarrassment).

Some of us are born introverts and find ourselves hiding beside the food bar alone, stuffing our faces to avoid conversation. You don’t always have to be the one talking during networking sessions, says Hor. You can be the listener but be careful when you’re approaching a group.

Look for big groups, she advises. “There are groups of two and groups of four. Which group are you supposed to join? They would think the fewer the better because they would be more comfortable with a smaller crowd, but I tell them to go to the group of four.

“If you join a group of two, there will be three of you. You need not talk, but what if one of the two left? You would be stuck with the other person. You would be awkward and not know how to excuse yourself,” explains Hor.

“In a group of four, even if two of them left, you would still have another two talking to you, so you won’t feel awkward. That’s how you slowly get used to networking.”

But how do you approach a group in the least awkward manner? Listen, observe and analyse the various groups around you and see which one you can add the most value to. “If you see a group that is really enjoying a conversation and laughing, try not to join in.

“Look for a group that is having a serious conversation. Pass by and listen in and if you think you can comment a bit, join the group. You wait for the right moment and introduce yourself.”

You begin with a handshake and greeting that includes your full name, she adds. However, if you feel your name is too long, mention your preferred name. For example, ‘Hi! I’m Theodore Sam Rajvinder but please call me Sam.’”

This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 24 - 30, 2014.