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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, August 22, 2006; 11:00 AM

Finesse and charm are the unsung tools of leaders. Cultivating convincing communication skills and the ability to act with ease in social and professional situations can be as important as your degree. Adopt the skills of the CEO set in Finishing School .

Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce answered readers' questions about professional poise.

An archive of Amy's Life at Work columns is available online.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.

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Amy Joyce: Good morning, folks. It's Tuesday, which means it is time to talk about your life at work.

This week's theme: What about those "soft" skills like communication, etiquette, proper dress. Do they matter? The short answer is probably. Let's chat about the polish we all need.

But we'll get to your other questions and comments, too. So as always, join in with your own advice and comments to help your fellow chatters along.

Alrighty, then. Let's get this chat going.

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Northwest Washington, D.C.: Ms. Joyce: I work for a semi-federal agency which has negotiated a seven-day-a-week "casual business attire" policy with its employees. Yet, in its headquarters building, most employees now opt for at least a tie, and frequently a suit and tie. Why -- certain unimaginative mid-level managers wanted to "look more professional," and opted to discard the new policy and subtly pressure staff to join them.

I'm old enough to know better, but I occasionally want to dress casually (albeit appropriately).

Our "field offices" -- including other DC "field" offices, as well as suburban Washington outposts -- all seem to embrace "casual business attire" and still be productive.

Do you think clubbing the mid-level managers in the head with a mallet is a bit much?

washingtonpost.com: Business Casual? Seriously. (Post, Aug. 13)

Amy Joyce: Because of clothing? Uh, yeah. That would be a bit much.

I think as long as you look polished and professional, you're all good. But think about what you have to do before you dress for the day. Meeting with clients who you want to take you seriously? Dress one step up. Think you'll be behind your desk all day type type typing? Biz casual seems fine. Check out what Robin Givhan, the Post's fashion critic, has to say about this with my column (check the link).

I say you live by Robin's rules, you'll be all set.

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Farragut Square, Washington, D.C.: Sideburns: How long is too long? Mine end at the bottom of my earlobe. They aren't bushy or the 2nd incarnation of Elvis. My wife and mom think they are too long, my concern is whether they are unprofessional. What's your opinion.

Amy Joyce: I can't see 'em so I can't comment. My guess? Listen to the women in your life.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning Amy. I've been wondering about footwear lately. On the street, I see a lot of women dressed nicely for work -- suits, dress pants, skirts, etc. -- that finish off their outfit with FLIP FLOPS! Not Gucci flips, but the cheapie $5 kind from CVS. I realize they are just for commuting, and they plan to change into heals, which aren't comfortable for commuting, but why not wear leather flats or something similar that's comfortable and still looks good? As a man, I'm not particularly keen on wearing a suit and tie on a really hot day, so I'll often pack the tie and coat and put on at work. Doesn't mean I go to work in a tank top though.

Amy Joyce: As a man, you might just not get it. You wear socks with your shoes, so it's more comfy. Women can't do that in the summertime. I wore leather flats to work the other day and, well, it ain't pretty.

Who cares if they are wearing flip flops to commute? Get over it.

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Boston, Mass.: Can I (or should I) use a thank you note as a chance to highlight an qualification or expand on an interview answer? Is it ok to sum up the main "why you should hire me" points in a succinct and friendly way, or should I just stick to the "thanks for your time" appreciative route?

Amy Joyce: A thank you note is very important. Don't rehash everything. Just say that you were very happy to meet everyone, you appreciate the time, and you were incredibly excited to discuss the possibility of working at X because you know it would be a great fit. (OR somesuch.)

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Washington, D.C.: I am 30 but I am regularly told I look like I am no older than 22. I've been freelancing for several years now, but am considering re-entering the 9 to 5, face-to-face business world. I'm afraid I won't be taken seriously because of my young look. I have a lot of skills and experience, and want to be recognized for it. Any advice?

Amy Joyce: Welcome to my world. Everyone says to be happy about it, but I understand how you feel. Just make sure your work highlights your experience, accomplishments and ability to get it all done...well. And when you're out meeting potential clients or interviewing, dress in a manner that really makes you look professional and ready to take on anything. That's the best you can do. And that's a lot.

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Vienna, Va.: Speaking of the ambiguities of business casual, does it ever create an awkward situation when you are more dressed up than your boss on a given day? Maybe you wear a tie and he doesn't, both business casual mind you, but I can't get over the idea that a manager should be a little better dressed than those s/he is managing.

Amy Joyce: Check out my column (link above). It's a-okay to be overdressed. Better that than underdressed. If you feel better dressing up, do it. Shouldn't matter what your boss is wearing.

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Anonymous: I LOVE your hair! That's a really good length for you.

Amy Joyce: Why thank you. I'm the queen of hair changes. I do that instead of get tattoos or pierce things.

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San Diego, Calif:  Amy, why do your Sunday columns only show up on the website on Tuesday. Here I am, stuck on the Left Coast, thirsting for the DC perspective on business on Sunday, and I only see last week's column. The same thing happens Monday. How am I supposed to occupy my work time if I can't spend it reading your most recent opus?

washingtonpost.com: If you have problems accessing Amy's article, it can be also be found in the Business Section

Amy Joyce: Oh dear. I'll see about that. But yes, just check out the Business section, where the column runs. I think if you throw my name in the site's search box, my most recent work pops up, too.

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Washington, D.C.: What color shoes should a woman wear with a navy blue suit?

Amy Joyce: My fashionista co-worker/podmate Ylan Mui says light brown, beige, tan, bone. Don't you dare try to wear black, she says. It will just look like you're trying to match the suit and it won't. She also thinks a subtle silver does well. But that would have to match the style of the suit (and office)...

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Washington, D.C.: Is there anything wrong with overdressing for work? I'm not talking about "dressing for the you want", but those in my office consider "business casual" to be over dressing for work. The majority of my agency does not adopt this dress code. I would rather dress like the rest of the agency, it's just more my style, but I am afraid of looking like I'm trying too hard. Am I over thinking this? I'm really more comfortable when I dress professionally.

Amy Joyce: You're probably overthinking it a bit. Wear what you feel good in and everyone will be happy.

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Silver Spring. Md.: I think the "soft" skills are essential to a first impression. You may be the best at whatever you do (writing, planning, etc) but you may not get the chance to demonstrate how good you are if people see a gum chewing (personal pet peeve) flip-flop wearer. Not that it is right but it is just the way it is. Writing skills are also essential to good presentation of self and work to include grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Amy Joyce: That's for sure. First impressions do matter. Even if you hope this isn't the case, people -- particularly clients, co-workers, potential bosses -- are judging you by that first or first few meet and greets.

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Washington, D.C.: Amy: In respect to proper dress being part of communication skills - that's right on. Our small office has an employee who is a good worker, but her dress style hold her back. I'm talking about clothes that are held together with pins, wrinkled and with small stains. She's a great person and valued worker, but she'll never have a high profile position until she can dress the part. Just my thoughts.

Amy Joyce: Has her boss suggested as much? That's really a shame if this good worker is not being used to her full potential because she is a clueless dresser.

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Anonymous: Amy, I'm starting a new job in a few weeks, and will be going from ultra casual to a professional/business casual environment. My current work wardrobe (jeans and skirts with tshirts and sandals) is definitely not okay for this new job. I'm a little overwhelmed as how to get started on buying new work clothes. I can't afford to spend tons of money on new suits, and I probably wouldn't need to wear one every day. Any suggestions on what to start with?

Amy Joyce: Try one decent suit and a few other outfits that will work for you. Mix and match. A neutral suit works well. Then you can wear the pants with a jacket or a different top on more casual days. Check out stores like Ann Taylor Loft/J Crew etc. for a good, switchable options.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Please ask Ylan why I can't wear navy pumps with my navy blue suit? I don't even try to wear black.

Amy Joyce: "Yeah, you can wear navy, but that's a whole lot of navy. I'd want to break it up," said Ylan.

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Washington, D.C.: One of my biggest pet peeves is when people give simple things new names just to make them sound more important or technical than they really are. Usually these new terms are more wordy, less efficient, or redundant (e.g., the gym is now a "fitness center"). My latest term du jour: HR people and their need to know what my "skill sets" are. Of course I have skills. I would be happy to explain my skills to you. But I refuse to call them a "skill set" when the simple plural "skills" works just fine. Just a rant. Thanks for hearing it. Now I must go to the eating center for lunch.

Amy Joyce: I will prioritize this on my agenda for the day. Thanks.

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shoes with navy suit: I like to wear (cute, not tacky!) red heels with a navy suit. It's fun and different.

Amy Joyce: As long as you don't look too nautical!

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Re: J. Crew: Nooooo, don't send people to J. Crew. Have you seen how high their prices are these days? Through the roof, especially for professional clothes. You had it right with Ann Taylor Loft (although their prices are creeping up). Banana Republic is also actually a cheaper, more professional option than J. Crew.

Amy Joyce: You're right! Banana. That's what I was thinking of. Thanks.

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Vienna, Va.: Tip for the poster who needs a more professional wardrobe: Try stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Filenes, Loehmans. In addition, check out online retailers Smart Bargains and Overstock. They all have nice suits at a fraction of the usual cost. I find they can have better deals than the mall stores like j crew.

Amy Joyce: More shopping tips. Other than haircuts, I like a little retail therapy every now and then. Thanks.

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Federal Triangle, Washington, D.C.: Amy,

I do think that communication and attire make a big difference in how you are perceived and treated on the job- at least within the younger generation of Feds. In my experience working in the federal government, for a few years now, the people who dress nicely (dress professional and look clean cut) and are out-going (have good communication skills) are the ones who get the promotions.

washingtonpost.com: Top Tips for Career Success

Amy Joyce: You're probably right. Here are a few more tips.

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Baltimore, Md.: I'd like to get your advice on making a career merge (not quite a change), if you will.

I am currently in a very technical position (Molecular Biology/Research Laboratory Supervisor) and am working on my MBA. I'd like to combine these two disciplines in my future career, but currently only have experience on the science side. So the two big questions I have are: How does one make a career change without starting over as a beginner with no experience? and In this type of situation, do you inform your boss that you are looking for something different? My supervisor is very supportive of my MBA aspirations, in fact, he suggested it. So he knows that at the very latest, when I graduate in 2 years, I'll be moving on. The initial plan was to work in my current position until I graduate, but there is really no benefit in doing this (I'm not gaining business experience and there is no tuition reimbursement). But in the meantime, he most likely would be a great resource for me to find a position within the University where we work.

Any thoughts? Thanks so much.

Amy Joyce: It sounds like your supervisor will be very supportive since he already suggested it. So why not talk to him about what you hope to do and see if you can take on some of the other types of work and gain skills in other areas while you're working. He may be able to push some things your way. This may help not only you, but your boss as well. If you're getting the support it sounds like you're getting, you might try to stay there and expand into a position you want and think you need. It's also a great way to see what you like/don't like about the possibility of a merge.

Anyone else have some suggestions?

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Navy Suit: I'm going to have to disagree with the light brown shoes. If you have to go brown, go dark brown. Light brown is so distracting and it's controversial. You'll think you are fashion forward, but I guarantee half of the people who look at it will think it was a bad choice.

Amy Joyce: Can a color be controversial?

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Bethesda, Md.: I relate to the woman who is 30, but looks much younger. In addition to wearing suits nearly every day, and glasses instead of contacts to look more mature (ok, wearing glasses a little extreme, but people really seem to respect the glasses!), I have tried to remove "like" and "you know" from my vocabulary and, frankly, just use better grammar when speaking to people. At times I feel like I shouldn't have to do all of this to get respect, I clearly have the "skills," but I think that it helps.

Amy Joyce: I think removing the likes from our speech does everyone some good. (I get into this rut, like, myself sometimes.)

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Boston, Mass.: I'm 22 and am a recent college graduate. I started to work for the government two months ago, in an office in which I am by far the youngest. With everyone at least 30 years older than me -- I'd like to have the chance to break out of everyone's mentoring attempts or being blown off and gain real responsibility. I interned in a similar position for two years prior to this job so I am quite familiar with the organization and the people. So, although I am new, I'm not ignorant and I'd like for people to take me a bit more seriously. Any pointers?

Amy Joyce: Stop thinking you don't need the mentoring. Thank people. Listen to them. And go ahead and voice your own thoughts and work opinions. They will grow in respect for you and you will gain valuable insight. It doesn't matter how old you are, advice and mentoring can be a help. Listen. Take in what you want. Disregard stuff you think doesn't work. And stop thinking of *yourself* in this way. If you keep reminding yourself you're the youngest in the office, you will be perceived that way.

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Arlington, Va.: What do females wear to interviews? If I don't own a suit, can I wear pants and a jacket? Or since its summer can I get away without wearing a jacket? Help! I've been wearing jeans and t-shirts to work for the past three years. Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: VIDEO: Interview Etiquette

Amy Joyce: Get a suit. It won't kill you. Every hiring manager I talk to would rather see someone overdressed than under. So don't chance it.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding appearing professional and polished:

I have been with an organization since graduating college and my old colleagues dress very casually. I moved into a more visible position in a formal office within the same org. However I would feel ridiculous wearing a suit to work when my old colleagues in the same building are wearing jeans. Are there any clothing options for women that are comfortable,professional and not stuffy?

washingtonpost.com: Raise Your Rank: Top Tips for Career Success

Amy Joyce: Slacks (I hate that word) and blouses or tops of various sorts seem like they would work in your sitch.

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Fairfax, Va.: Amy, love you column and chat, I think this is a great tool for everyone in the workplace.

Is it just me or has communication become way too casual in the workplace? Whatever happened to addressing and signing your emails? Using proper grammar and punctuation? Are we all in too much of a hurry to actually type "you" instead of "u"?? Perhaps it is just me, but this is a becoming a major pet peeve and I just don't get why people don't take every opportunity to show professionalism in their work. For the record I am young, just turned 30, started my career in the jean wearing days of .com and do not consider myself stuffy.

Amy Joyce: I'm with u on that. How 'bout when someone responds with "tnx" 'stead of a full "thanks"... If they were really thankful, they would spend the time to write three more letters.

E-mail has really changed the way we communicate. And although I'm not all for formality in constant e-communcation, a little more than ttyl's and u r's are probably wise. Talking to a co-worker or boss via email is different than IMing your pals, or it should be. It just shows you care and are careful.

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Washington, D.C.: Amy,

I hope you can answer this before the chat is over. I'm 31 and I notice in my office most women my age and younger no longer wear pantyhose, especially in the summer. Is it appropriate to wear a business suit without pantyhose? I was raised to always do so, but I am starting to feel like I am dressing much older than my peers. (I will wear business casual without hose). Please help!

Amy Joyce: Robin Givhan says no pantyhose, particularly in summer. Ick. No need to torture yourself like that. If you're not comfy with bare legs, wear lightweight pants.

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Columbia, MD: One way to remove the "likes" and "ums" and all the rest -- a few sessions of Toastmasters! I am far more aware of them now, for myself and for others (which is worse sometimes).

Amy Joyce: Lots of folks around here swear by it. Thanks.

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Washington D.C.: Odd question, but here goes: Do you have any knowledge of some sort of etiquette class to help prevent clumsiness? I tend to be klutzy (especially when I'm under stress) and feel like it makes me appear unprofessional at times.

Amy Joyce: How about some yoga? (These are questions and answers I never thought being a career columnist would require!)

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Washington, D.C.: Etiquette counts: Probably? No, absolutely! I would no more hire someone without at least basic interpersonal skills than I would fly to the moon.

No, not all jobs require extensive interaction, and yes, some jobs require a much higher level of social skills than others. But even for the simplest or most isolated jobs I need my employees to be able to interact civilly with at least their supervisors and co-workers.

Amy Joyce: And there you have it, folks.

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Washington, D.C.: Question about over-friendly coworkers -- I just started in an entry-level job. Many of my coworkers have been here longer, and (I assume) make more money than me. They often invite me to join them to go out for lunch, which I appreciate, but living in an expensive city on an entry-level salary, I can't afford to eat out at lunch so often. Any hints on how to say no without becoming "the antisocial one"?

Amy Joyce: Say you'd love to go, but you packed. Ask if there's a way to bring your lunch along. The social aspect of this can be really good for you, particularly as an entry leveler.

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Washington, D.C.: I like your hair.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. It's my business casual, but professional look.

On that note, have a great week, all. I'll be here again same time, same place next week to have a free for all chat about life at work. You can e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com and don't forget to check out the column in the Sunday business section.

TTYL! Tnx! C-U!

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