Survival Guide: Dorothea Johnson, the Protocol School of Washington

Dorothea Johnson

Chuck Kennedy

Dorothea Johnson, the Protocol School of WashingtonNo matter how high you've climbed on the corporate ladder, if you're lacking in etiquette, you could be hurting your company's image, as well as your own, according to Dorothea Johnson.

As founder the Protocol School of Washington (, Johnson has trained more than 50,000 people in 33 countries on proper etiquette and protocol. Her clients come from business, government, education and entertainment.

She is a widely quoted etiquette expert, and since 1974 has been a protocol adviser to the Joint Military Attaché School. She is the author of "The Little Book of Etiquette," "Tea & Etiquette" and co-author of "The Power of Handshaking," and is featured in columns in several trade magazines.

So get ready to mind your Ps and Qs following what Johnson had to say to Managing Editor Evamarie Socha.

WT: What is etiquette?

Johnson: Manners is how you treat someone; etiquette is knowing how to treat someone. In business, if you don't know business etiquette, you can look like a clod.

There is a great difference between social and business etiquette. In social etiquette, a man pulls out a chair for a woman. In the business arena, women shouldn't expect that. They cannot be treated differently; gender does not play a role in the business arena.

WT: Are people surprised by that?

Johnson: A lot of them are. I once spoke to a professional group in Northern Virginia, and I was telling them that in the business arena, women must stand to meet new people. One woman said, "Women don't stand for men. I don't stand for anyone."

I walked over, reached across the table and shook her hand. I pointed out that I am looking down at her, she's lower than me. If she is to maintain a position of strength, she needs to rise.

Standing shows respect to the other person and to you. I got such flak, you wouldn't believe.

WT: What are the rules regarding touching?

Johnson: Handshaking is really the only touching that should be permitted in business in this country. The lawsuits brought from harassment have made it very clear.  

WT: You wrote an entire book just on handshaking.

Johnson: You can tell so much about a person from a handshake. In the book, we detail 12 different handshakes to be aware of.

WT: Is there a basic handshake?

Johnson: Think web to web. Use your right hand, keep your thumb pointed up, your fingers closed together. The web between your thumb and index finger should touch the web of the other person's hand. The hands should be flat enough so your palms are touching.

WT: What about body language?

Johnson: When you go in for that handshake, make sure your shoulders are squared with the other person, your feet are firm on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Face the person directly, not at an angle. For women, don't assume the model's pose. [This is one leg in front of the other and turned at the ankle.] It's fine if you're posing, but you can't really give a good handshake with that pose.

And if you are tilting your head, stop that. I've talked to some many psychologists who've studied this, and it does indeed take something away from a person. Women are chronically guilty of this.  

WT: When is a good time to give someone your business card?

Johnson: After several moments of conversation, and never before the handshake. When you have determined this person is a potential business contact, have your card ready and ask, "May I give you my card?" Don't just thrust it at them. Junior executives never offer a senior executive a card. Wait until they request it. When you visit someone, give the receptionist your business card and state who you are there to see. It's helpful so that person can announce who is there. Someone can say his or her name, and two minutes later the person will have forgotten it.

WT: Is there special etiquette for dealing with government people?

Johnson: I suggest doing research on whichever branch you're visiting. Be very mindful regarding gifts. That is one of the biggest faux pas made; it's illegal for some people to accept them. If it's a foreign government, become acquainted with the etiquette of that country.

WT: Is there any room in business for compliments?

Johnson: Do not compliment on looks. Compliment on a tremendous job or a great briefing. Remember, this is where those lawsuits stem from. You don't compliment on looks or clothes.

WT: How about women complimenting each other?

Johnson: It just isn't necessary. Do you hear men say to each other, 'Hey, great haircut,' or 'That's a really close shave today'? Be professional at all times ? not cold, but knowledgeable.

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