White with Fish, Red with Meat: Assistant Etiquette

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This article was contributed by YPG member Christine P. Chan. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Tara Powers at tpowers@wwnorton.com.

The little nuances that come with being an assistant—our mannerisms, what we say and the way we say it, the way we dress—might seem to be of relative importance. Generally speaking, we do not have as much responsibility or oversight on large, long-term projects as our managers do. We may have pressing deadlines and may be assigned tasks that must be completed in order for the department to run smoothly, but colleagues in the office are not awaiting our approval or depending on our decisions to get their work done.

Since we have a little more time and energy to focus on the subtleties of our behavior, though, we assistants are likely to be judged not merely on our work (though the quality of our work is very important) but on how we carry ourselves while we do our work.

Here are some quick tips for crafting your best professional self:

“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” is old adage that many assistants do follow their first few weeks as a new hire, but then gradually abandon. Maybe you didn’t get promoted after your first month at the company, but you can still avoid looking like an assistant by keeping your wardrobe jean-free (and yes, dark blue and even black jeans are still jeans!).

Casual Friday is not obligatory! People may tell you, “Oh, we dress very casually here. You don’t need to dress up,” and indeed, the realm of publishing is a little more relaxed, but take a look around your office. Most of the people in higher-level positions are dressed up a bit more, even on Fridays. Notice how these colleagues are treated as well—they garner respect. Chances are, you’re already young enough to look like a post-grad baby. So if dressing up the right way for work every day can instantly boost your look from editorial assistant to assistant editor, it’s something, right?

Make eye contact with your colleagues. Even if they interrupt you in the middle of an assignment, quickly (and I reinforce quickly) mark your place for when you resume. Then look up and begin talking. Don’t talk to them while you’re still looking down at your desk or at the computer. You might be afraid you’ll lose your place or your concentration, but to others, this distraction may come off as downright rude. Give your colleagues your full attention and really look them in the eye whenever you talk to them. You’ll seem much more grounded and sincere that way.

Remembering names is key. I cannot stress this enough. Know everyone’s names: the names of the people in delivery and mail services, the person at the copy center, your supervisor, your friend’s supervisor, your boss’s boss, and your cube neighbors. Know who people are and what they do. When someone comes up to you and asks, “Is so-and-so in the office today?” don’t be the assistant that responds, “Who?”

Once you know people’s names, say them! Use them! When you talk to someone, try to end the sentence with her or his name. “Good Morning, Christine.” “Thanks, Christine.” “Hey, Christine, how’s it going?” “See ya later, Christine.” (But let’s not go too crazy—you only have to say the name once.) It makes the greeting or comment much more personal. Challenge yourself today: For every person with whom you come into contact, make sure to use the person’s name in the conversation at least once!

Company parties: White wine with fish and red wine with meat is a piece of advice I often share. One YPG member recounted to me a time when she was at a department lunch, baffled at what to order when her bosses wanted to get wine: “I didn’t know which food goes with which wine!” Yes, there are exceptions, but keep it simple: white wine with fish and sushi and red wine with meat. As for holiday and other office parties, unless you absolutely cannot attend, go! They are good opportunities to network and show that you care about your workplace. If you’re a new hire and feel awkward not knowing anyone, ask another newbie to go with you. And remember, this is still work—just in a more casual setting. Company parties aren’t an excuse to let loose—stick to polite conversation, and drink modestly!

To give or not to give … presents? If you’ve ever wondered whether you have to give a gift to your editor, boss, or manager a gift for the holidays or birthdays, the answer is no. In the working world, it is customary, though not mandatory, for superiors to give gifts to their assistants. In addition to being a nice gesture, it shows that they are in the higher position—making more money than you—to give you a gift. If you have enough time, coordinate a group gift. Just make sure that you invited everyone in your department to contribute so you don’t leave anyone out! A nice card may be the best option.

Assistant work can be repetitive, so it’s important to always keep in mind the purpose of being an assistant: to have a basic and foundational skill set under your belt, to acquire a general knowledge of the industry, to build networks and relationships, and to learn how to carry yourself in a professional manner. If you can remember that, there’s nowhere you’ll be going but up!

Christine P. Chan is currently a development editorial assistant for John Wiley and Sons, Inc. You can follow her on her budding YouTube channel “Liam Christine” by clicking here.

Neither the Association of American Publishers (“AAP”) nor the Young To Publishing Group (“YPG”) represents nor endorses the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement or other information displayed, uploaded or distributed through this website by any member, user, information provider or any other person or entity. Member-generated content published on this website reflects the views of the provider of the content, and does not constitute the opinion of the AAP, the Young To Publishing Group, or any of their respective members or divisions.

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One Response to “ White with Fish, Red with Meat: Assistant Etiquette ”

  1. #PubTips « The (Writer's) Waiting Room on May 24, 2012 at 1:03 PM
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    […] Already in an internship/assistant/entry-level position? Worried about doing the wrong thing? Remember, white wine with fish and red wine with meat (and these other important tips). […]