What are the rules that you grew up with? You know, the ones that you always had to observe like “don’t talk back to your elders” or “always say please and thank you.”
Growing up, I loved etiquette books. I read Miss Manners and Emily Post books cover to cover, digging into the more obscure details of tea parties, polite correspondence and the correct weight of stationery a “lady” should use.
I have always believed that the popularity of etiquette-related content lies in the promise of upward mobility. That was certainly the attraction for me, anyway. I grew up without a lot of money or advantages, but with a mother who was a stickler for proper behavior, including table manners, handshakes and myriad markers of gentility.
The assumption on both of our parts was that one day I would interact with people who belonged to a higher social echelon, and when that day came, I would know how to behave, which fork to use and how to carry on a conversation. In many ways, my mother’s dreams for me came true.
- I met a former U.S. Secretary of State at my college roommate’s house.
- I once taught the grandson of a Supreme Court Justice.
- I have worked with industry leaders from around the world as a writer and consultant.
I won’t say my behavior was always perfect, but I always felt comfortable in my own skin, in large part because I had a basic working knowledge of how to conduct myself in “polite” company. It’s truly a little-regarded but important advantage.
Now, however, our world is so different. As a society, we can hardly agree on anything. That means that the rules of polite behavior in many contexts are different as well.
For real estate agents, it may mean that what used to feel professional now feels stuffy. For the would-be luxury agent, it may be difficult to know how to step up your game in a way that makes sense for your market. It may make negotiating more difficult and marketing feel like more of a guessing game.
What can we agree on, and how can we find common ground? What rules seem to be on their way out and what’s next? We reached out to agents and brokers in the Inman community through both our broker and agent Facebook groups for some insight into the new rules of professional etiquette today. Here are a few tips we picked up.
There were plenty of different views of professional behavior and appearance in our informal survey. Some variability was driven by generational differences while others came from differences in the market or from personal preferences.
There was already disagreement about handshakes even before COVID made the handshake seem downright dangerous. As someone who comes from a long line of family members with arthritis, I know that a firm handshake can be a dreaded social convention for many, especially older folks.
Eric Reusch, broker associate at Bunbury and Associates, called out the “dead carp” handshake, which he said caused him to “immediately lose all respect” for the other party. By contrast, Danny Dietl, broker at BRIX Real Estate, said he was “firmly anti-handshake,” shaking hands if offered but not initiating.
Top tip: Respect people’s preferences, and try to understand that the rules are not the same in a post-COVID world.
While different people may have different thoughts and feelings about handshakes and their alternatives, like elbow bumps, the time has come for us to stop judging each other by the firmness and quality of our handshakes. Don’t get offended if someone doesn’t shake your hand — perhaps they are ill, immunocompromised or simply prefer not to shake hands.
I’ll go one step further and enrage the huggers in the readership. For many, “I’m a hugger” used to provide carte blanche to invade the personal space and ignore the personal preferences of others. The thinking went that if someone else were not a hugger, a preference for hugs trumped their preference for social distance.
At this point, there are many good reasons to forego hugs, especially among casual acquaintances. If you’re a hugger, stick to those close family and friends who share your preference rather than imposing it on business colleagues or those you’re meeting for the first time.
As a former high school teacher, one of the first big etiquette shifts I noticed with my students was eye contact avoidance. At first, I was inclined to think of a lack of eye contact as disrespectful or rude, but over time, I noticed that it became more common among many students from all academic levels and social engagement styles and regardless of how positive our other interactions were.
Although fixing on someone with unblinking eye contact is undoubtedly creepy, it’s appropriate to make some eye contact when speaking with someone. For many who are used to working with others through the computer or phone, it can be hard to get back into the habit of making eye contact in face-to-face interactions.
Top tip: If you get nervous when looking someone straight in the eye, try to focus somewhere around their eyes.
If you get nervous when looking someone straight in the eye, try to focus somewhere around their eyes, perhaps at their eyebrows or nose.
If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t make frequent eye contact, don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s a sign of disrespect or untrustworthiness. It might simply be a sign of social anxiety or a simple difference in generational, cultural or communication norms.
There was plenty of talk about professional dress in our Facebook call-outs, from those who felt that real estate professionals had become too casual in both dress and behavior, as well as those who felt that professional dress was much more about the individual market than any prescribed rules.
Stephen O’Hara, CEO and broker at Common Ground Properties in Newport Beach, California, said his watchword could be summed up as “be yourself,” having done “literally every transaction in [his] 40 years in shorts and golf shirts and boat shoes.”
Top tip: No matter your market, dress so that if someone walks up to your showing, they know who the agent is.
O’Hara said that though most of his clients are wealthy, they wear board shorts and flip-flops rather than suits and ties, so mirroring them, rather than trying to intimidate them, is his preferred style.
Erica Ramus, broker-owner at Ramus Realty Group, said, “I get casual. What I don’t get is sloppy.” Her tip for professional attire? “Dress so that if someone walks up to your showing, they know who is the agent.”
Ron Davis, broker with Voyage Real Estate, expressed a similar idea, saying, “I think you need to be one level up from your average client in dress and car.”
One of the biggest ideas that came out of the online conversation around etiquette was that all of the handshakes, power suits and eye contact in the world won’t help if your communication is not where it needs to be.
“How about focusing on returning calls and emails,” suggested broker Judy Moriarty. Having just returned from a house-hunting trip to another state with her daughter, Moriarty said that not one agent she reached out to returned her calls or emails, even those she reached out to from social media real estate groups.
Top tip: Return correspondence and phone calls in a timely manner. Identify yourself in text messages. Treat everyone with respect.
Maywright Property Co. founder and broker Natalie Clayton concurred, citing articulate email and verbal communications, responding within a reasonable time frame, being knowledgeable and educated, and treating all parties with respect. A number of readers also mentioned identifying yourself by name in texts and phone calls
Taken together, then, etiquette today seems to be less about the trappings of polite behavior and more about the deep down essentials: competence, professionalism and mutual respect. Looking the part of a real estate professional just isn’t enough — you need to act the part as well.
Pathways to Professionalism
One great starting point in revisiting some old etiquette rules and formulating some new ones came from Eric Axelson, broker of record at REAL. When teaching ethics, Axelson promotes NAR’s Pathways to Professionalism, part of NAR’s Code of Ethics and Arbitration Manual. It outlines the behaviors associated with respect for the public, respect for property and respect for peers in the industry.
Behaviors covered by Pathways to Professionalism range from the highly specific — “Use sidewalks; if weather is bad, take off shoes and boots inside property” — to the general — “Follow the ‘Golden Rule’: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Whether you are just starting out or working with your team to develop operational processes, Pathways to Professionalism is a great resource to help you define the dos and don’ts of professional behavior.
Christy Murdock is a Realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant and the owner of Writing Real Estate. She is also the creator of the online course Crafting the Property Description: The Step-by-Step Formula for Reluctant Real Estate Writers. Follow Writing Real Estate on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.