Issues,  Legal Practice

Keeping it Classy: how business etiquette promotes classism

When we enter the legal field, it can feel complicated and difficult to master appropriate business etiquette because most of us have not had as much exposure to this type of culture. Most of us do not come from high income families, or families with professional parents, and yet after graduation we find ourselves colleagues to those that come from higher socioeconomic positions.

We do what we can to fit in, but we’re so consumed with fitting in and abiding by these rules that  we don’t take time to assess them or even acknowledge why these means of communication often feel unnatural to us. Many people act as if business etiquette is just a natural part of any civilized person; the reality is that these rules are created by people in power who have certain cultural norms that aren’t like our cultural norms.  So if you’ve found it difficult to navigate the social norms of professionalism realize that it’s not because you’re not good enough, rather the system was created with different people in mind.


First, remember that learning the social cues of business etiquette is an art form*.  This article gets it right when it asks, “who taught you to shake hands?”  Likely many of us come from families where this isn’t typical behavior and instead we picked up these rules from t.v. or mentors that were outside of the family. Shaking hands is  a simple thing, for sure, but if we weren’t taught these behaviors or are used to something else that is contrary to what’s expected, then one may feel apprehensive about having to interact in unknown/unfamiliar ways.

Of course there are some things are easy to learn (like handshaking) that doesn’t require so much thought, but there are also some behaviors that feel like a real conflict. An often cited cultural difference discusses how Latinos (generally speaking) may not look in the eyes of teachers or supervisors as a form of respect, but in the U.S. we’re expected to look people in the eye as a way to show our integrity and character.  That’s a huge contrast in expected behaviors. How do you reconcile one with the other? It can  feel stifling if our instinct is to do one thing, but we have to hold ourselves back to meet expectations.

Like for me, I naturally am upfront about my opinions and assessments (not in a rude way, but in a way that can seem blunt) and that’s because my family values honesty and openness.  But in a professional setting, I learned that almost everything I say, especially as a woman,  has to be tapered and sometimes presented in methodical ways so as not to offend or cause waves–even though it would be so much easier and clear if we could just be truthful with one another!  But that’s not the way business etiquette works–or at least if you do work it that way you may end up dealing with not-so-great side-effects.

Another issue we may face when learning to navigate professionalism is dealing with a fear that we’re not living up to standard that’s been imposed on us. We start to fear making mistakes and that may hold us back from being active in our career.  Or worse, we may begin to judge our family and community based on these standards and view them negatively for their lack of knowledge (or really, just their different approach to business and community). In short, we may start to believe the hype and unconsciously begin to look down on friends and family because they just aren’t “white collar” enough. And that’s really bogus. More than anything, we should remember that “professionalism” does not equal integrity, high standards, or good values.

What helped me when I was learning business etiquette was to become comfortable with code-switching.  I code switch all the time and to some that may seem fake, but really it’s survival. Quickly, I learned that there are certain sets of rules in the legal field made by and made for people (men) that don’t look like me.  As a woman of color it was incumbent of me to understand that we are outsiders to this profession because we don’t have power and don’t get to set the rules. That, instead, I had to learn how to reflect the appropriate behaviors in various situations if I wanted my career to grow.  Once I understood that, code-switching became easy because it doesn’t feel like I’m completely changing my personality.  Now, during networking events, meetings with outside groups, etc. I can easily assess to see how I should present so as to reach whatever goal I have for that situation. It feels fake and awkward at first, but just like when you’re learning a new language–the more you practice the easier it will be for you.  Soon enough, you’ll have mastered the rules of professionalism without impacting other parts of yourself.





*There’s a school of thought that argues that we shouldn’t feel the need to assimilate to our surroundings and that we should push back on these expectations.  You do you, boo. But for me–until we get a sit at the table, where we can create real change and opportunity for others, I’m going to keep giving advice to help you at least reach the table. 

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