People Basics


Strive to communicate better, always.

No one is perfect when it comes to communication. Yet there are so many wonderful resources to learn from to improve. The single best book on how to interact with others may be NonViolent Communication. It offers tools to connect in warmer, kinder ways across all areas of life.

Presume everyone you meet may circle back around to your world in unexpected ways

A woman friend saw a man on a popular online dating site. Despite profiles being anonymous, he shared a picture of a colorful protein he had designed as a scientist. The woman happened to have a friend in the same city who also designed proteins, so she showed the picture to him. They worked in neighboring labs. The friend was able to quickly explain why they would not be a good match, although he was a good guy. There is nothing wrong with this story; it just demonstrates that it is truly a small world, so share information about yourself carefully and treat others accordingly.


Be a good guest in others’ homes

Clean up after yourself fully, be nonintrusive, and ask if you are unsure about protocol. Bring a token gift such as a plant, flowers or wine, but not art or housewares, as many hosts prefer to choose their own home decor. Do not try to help by using appliances on your own. I once came back from a business trip to Asia to find half of my linens ruined after a houseguest washed them without telling me, but left before putting them in the dryer, so they sat molding for 10 days. Not helpful. Stripping the bed is nice. Leaving surprises is not.


Show gratitude often

Express thanks to those who deserve it, both for acts they do for you and acts they do on behalf of society or organizations. Keep thank-you cards in your home and office.


Respect privacy

You have no idea what someone might be going through, and she may not want to share it with you at that particular moment, or at all. Hold back from asking overly personal questions, especially about health.




Overuse humor and jokes

In general, it is best to avoid them in the workplace, even if they seem inoffensive and funny to you. Most likely there are people of other cultures in your workplace, however small or large the differences. I have seen whole keynote addresses fall flat due to misfired humor. A competent colleague was asked to present to an audience with people from dozens of different countries at an international organization. He used his usual style, and peppered the talk with American reference points—cowboys and Indians, baseball, vintage movies. None of this was comprehensible to the majority of the audience, so his messages were lost in the confusion and distraction. If you happen to have a knack for delivering humor well, beware. You can be too tempted to use humor to avoid addressing tough issues, or too quick to make a joke that is inappropriate. When in doubt, withhold, and be careful. In personal life, humor should not be used at the expense of others.


Comment on personal appearance

Weight is one to avoid at all costs, whether gaining or losing. You do not know whether the person is dealing with illness or is highly sensitive on the subject. It is rude to bring it up. An example of unintentional but hurtful appearance commentary: In a springtime staff meeting, two women in support staff roles sitting next to each other were wearing bright pastel tops. An attorney commented that they looked pretty, like Easter eggs. She did not think through the words and meant no harm, just said it based on the bright colors after months of blacks and greys. Later that day, one of the women took her aside in tears, saying she was considering filing a human resources claim for harassment. The attorney immediately apologized, expressed sincerely that her intent was not at all to make fun of her weight, and that she felt terrible. She was not aware of the woman’s struggles with weight and had not considered that the comment would be perceived as referencing physical shape. She meant it as a compliment, but it hurt someone else and could have hurt her career. Lesson learned: Do not comment on others’ appearance. Forming a habit of avoiding it will help prevent accidental spontaneous comments that could have bad consequences despite good intent.


Overuse electronics when engaging with others

Please have the courtesy to put away your phone during meals with others, when speaking to others directly, when on public transportation, in waiting rooms, and other high-traffic places. You will stand out. Recent studies show that people are perceived as smarter when they are looking directly at others, not at electronics, so that is an added bonus. For a good article on this and other behavioral traits signaling intelligence, read the article “How to Look Smarter” by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2015.