The 3 subtle 'soft' skills crucial to success — that will only get more valuable in the future

ByJames Dennin

It's no secret that the robots are coming for our jobs

Yet — while there's little to do about steadily encroaching automation — there are still a lot of jobs and skills that require a human touch. 

Even the smartest robots, for instance, reportedly have trouble with simple tasks like walking up stairs, picking up paperclips or reading facial expressions, according to the New Yorker

Stupid robots.

Indeed, that final skill — reading faces — is a clue to the kinds of attributes that will always be valued in the workplace, at networking events, and even in your personal life: courtesy, being able to work a room and having a personality.

Yes they are "soft" skills. But research suggest that these subtle strengths will only become more valuable in the future — and could represent the difference between getting hired and rejected, or getting promoted and ignored.

Here are three "timeless" skills that all workers should try to master, according to etiquette instructors interviewed by Mic.

Projecting confidence — with your hands

People tend to get hung up on the obvious challenges when they practice public speaking: Avoiding "um"s, projecting and looking up at the audience.

But what even smart and experienced speakers mess up? Not knowing what to do with their hands, according to Gail Madison, an etiquette instructor who has taught at the Wharton Business School. 

"His body language will be all over the place, his arms would flail around," Madison said when describing her typical corporate client. "If you’re so distracted by someone’s appearance, you can’t hear what they’re saying."

The key is to keep your hand gestures to a minimum, Madison suggests. Focus instead on eye contact as a way to maintain your audience's attention. 

As for your handshake?

There's a pretty strict formula for that, Beaumont Etiquette founder Myka Meier noted: "Two handshakes for business, three pumps for social."

Asking the right "small talk" questions

Once you've gotten through the handshake, then it's time to figure out what to actually talk about. That can be uncomfortable with relative strangers.

Luckily, there are a few failsafes — just don't try to bring up the weather: "Weather is what people talk about when nobody knows what else to talk about, and so it can make it awkward," Meier said.

Instead, "make sure you’re always asking open-ended questions. 'How do you know the host?' is a good one" at parties or events, she said. 

A habit to avoid, Meier said, is falling back on asking someone what they do for a living, as it could seem opportunistic. (Not to mention the potentially awkward possibility that they are in between jobs.)

"Everything on YouTube in terms of etiquette is incorrect," Madison said. "I watched one once and I was horrified."

That sentiment was echoed by Bill Jula, a founder of the professional networking site Opportunity. Jula noted that the company's matches started improving when they began listing home towns, as opposed to just jobs. 

"I think it’s about finding a few commonalities between the two of you," Jula said. "Trying to build that relationship that may ultimately become a job opportunity or sales opportunity."

Using tricks to remember people's names

Remembering names can be a tall order when you're at an event or in a situation where you're meeting lots of people at the same time, but luckily our etiquette guides had some tips.

"If we're talking about networking, you don't go to the event to eat, you eat before," Madison said, noting that nomming on chicken wings can be a distraction to your conversation partner. "If possible, get a guest list ahead of time, so you have an agenda and then can follow up."

If you can do a little homework, that will also make keeping track of names a lot easier. Can't pull that off? Then you're left with name-tag placement and mnemonic devices as a means of keeping everyone straight.

"Name badge goes up high on the right shoulder," Madison said. "It’s someone’s direct line of vision and you’re in a networking situation, you want to make it easy to spot."

Repeating names right after you hear them is a good trick, Meier noted, but if you mess up just be straightforward. 

"Usually I’m honest, just tell them 'I’m so sorry, your name slipped.' If you’ve just met someone, it’s OK," Meier said.

But "a good trick is to find someone else in the room you do know and say, 'I’d love to introduce you to this person,' and then get them to provide the name again."


If you do end up messing up on one of these rules, it's important that you don't freak out too much over it.

At the end of the day, etiquette instructors reiterated that etiquette's really just about practicing empathy and being considerate. That has more to do with paying attention to the person that's speaking to you than being able to afford a fancy suit (although Madison noted the suit helps, preferably in navy).

Soft skills can really pay off: Research has shown that people who have a casual conversation with their hiring manager before getting down to business typically get better offers. 

So take a weekend, or an evening, and attend an event so you can brush up on these basics.

At the very least, Mom will be impressed. 

Sign up for The Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic’s creditsavingscareerinvesting and health care hubs for more information — that pays off.