Did you just roll your eyes when I took my turn to speak at our Zoom meet?

Published August 14, 2021, 10:00 AM

by Carol RH Malasig

Age of Authenticity: Is there room for professionalism and poise in the online world?

MAKE WORK FROM HOME WORK Karen Ostrea on the job in today’s pandemic setup at her home

The first time I ever attended a professional etiquette class was during my training as a TV reporter. Part of our preparation as the first batch of journalists for English news channel Solar News (now CNN Philippines) was to spend a couple of days with Global Image Management director Karen Agustin-Ostrea. Etiquette has always been an interesting topic so I admit that I took her class rather seriously, which covered things like posture and talking to people professionally. Little did I know it would eventually pay off in more ways than one.

Karen and I kept in touch after that training and we were even reunited in Kuala Lumpur when she came over to conduct a class at the embassy. Now back in Manila and having gone back into yet another hard lockdown, it’s inevitable that our business and social interactions have also gone back to being internet-based. It got me wondering: How are etiquette and social graces being translated online?

“It’s tough,” Karen said over a video call. “Picking up on social cues gets harder when you’re just seeing someone through a screen.” Being a tad more conscious of how we present ourselves and how we perceive the words and expressions of the people we are communicating with online goes a long way.

Come to think of it, how many of us have had horror stories during these online interactions mostly stemming from being misunderstood? How much can one’s professional image suffer during this pandemic where our situations have become everything but the ordinary?

Beyond learning to mute yourself

In video calls, Karen says it has come to a point that people would rather keep their cameras off. Maybe it’s Zoom call fatigue or maybe you just need a break to roll your eyes over what a colleague said. For a better connection, however, and to show that you’re being fully present in a meeting, it’s best to have the camera on. Yes, even when there are multiple participants.

WORK LIFE BALANCE Karen with her family

“Distractions are present even in face-to-face interactions but it has gotten worse now [online],” Karen said. “It’s harder to focus on just the face. You focus on a rectangular screen, which includes so many different things.”

From the background to ambient noise and a random person walking into the frame, there are several things that can take focus away from you. Karen’s advice is to curate your environment based on how you want to be perceived.

“I don’t want people focusing on things that are not related to the topic we’ll be discussing,” she said. “I know I have a great family but whenever I have to teach etiquette online, I don’t have anything relating to them on the screen.”

It’s a reality that the lines between family and professional life have gotten blurred. Some crying here and a bark there, while inevitable and should be understandable, will still affect one’s professional image.

She added that her being a wife and a mom has nothing to do with her being an image consultant. In real life, elegant people have always known how to compartmentalize the different aspects of their being. They also get to exercise control. Karen has gotten years of practice in effectively implementing these through the years. She highly recommends learning to compartmentalize your life as it can make you more productive in every role you need to play. “What people see on screen affects social cues. People will interact with you based on what they see.”

It’s a reality that the lines between family and professional life have gotten blurred. Some crying here and a bark there, while inevitable and should be understandable, will still affect one’s professional image. “It’s a reality we must accept during this time but it shouldn’t stop us from trying our best.”

LADY IN RED Karen in working gear

Elegance in control

With less real-life social interactions, people have also turned to social media as a way to stay connected with others. From family and close friends to colleagues and even strangers, it’s easy for a lot of people to gain access to your life. It’s a common misconception that for one to be authentic and likeable online, one must overshare senselessly. The truth is, while it does get people’s attention on the get-go, it doesn’t really work for the long term. “It’s okay to talk about something personal but it’s in the way you package it,” Karen said, adding that one doesn’t have to give away every single detail.

Karen shares that there are three pillars to etiquette and being socially graceful: respect, consideration, honesty. She adds, however, that while honesty is important, the other two shouldn’t be forgotten for the sake of it. Sharing one’s highs doesn’t need to come across as arrogant and talking about a negative experience doesn’t have to come across as complaining.

“It’s okay to share something negative if it’s something that can bring awareness and encourage others to overcome difficult situations but if it’s just ranting, then you better rethink that,” she said.

Etiquette for everyone

Because of her interest in protocol and etiquette while growing up, Karen thought of becoming a diplomat herself but found that her calling lies in training people in one of diplomacy’s popular aspects. She believes that such lessons are not just for those in the diplomatic community. Rather, everyone could use working knowledge on proper etiquette and handling one’s image, especially in this day and age.

“It’s inevitable that everybody will interact with someone online or offline,” Karen shared.  “This pandemic has already proven that we still continue our human interactions on a daily basis and part of having a smooth interaction with others is to be able to give and receive respect from others.”

At the end of the day, etiquette is more than a rigid set of rules. It’s how we make people feel about our presence.