I’ve written before about la bella figura, the Italian idea of casting a beautiful figure. It’s about the way you look and dress, but it’s also about the way you behave as well. It’s about manners, etiquette, and how to be elegant in social situations.

In modern terms, we would describe la bella figura as part of your personal brand. It’s the you that you present to the world.

How do you learn to be elegant in social situations, especially if you are shy, introverted, or feel awkward when meeting new people?

I’m not going to get into detailed information about etiquette. That subject could fill a book. Even a basic understanding of etiquette can help you cast an elegant figure.

Here are some helpful tips:

Elegance in the way you look

People will make snap judgments about you based on your appearance. That’s why it’s so important to decide how you want to be perceived. Your clothes, accessories, hair, and makeup are making a statement about you, long before you ever open your mouth. Make sure your appearance is sending the message you want to convey. If you’re not sure, ask someone to evaluate your look.

I know I have a hard time with what is commonly known as resting bitch face. My face naturally looks sad. It’s something about the way my lips turn downward and my full cheeks hang. When I smile even a little, my whole face brightens up. People are always telling me to smile. It can be annoying. But I understand the way my face presents itself. When I walk into a room full of people, I make sure I smile a little, so that I don’t look like I’m bored. I can be perceived as snobby, when in reality I am anything but.

Body language can also say a lot about you. When I was in acting school we would study body language as a way to convey a certain mood or feeling. Poor posture can make you look weak. Good posture can make you look confident. You may feel the same way inside no matter how you are standing, but you will be perceived differently by how you are holding up your body.

Your clothing can speak volumes about your social status, class, and income level. Your wardrobe can also affect how you see yourself. If you are wearing a ratty old tee shirt and sweats, how do you feel? When you put on a dress, do you feel differently. Do you walk differently when you wear heels as opposed to sneakers? Of course you do. You will appear differently to others as well.

Think about what your clothes are saying about you. Do they say you are successful, or that you’ve given up, or somewhere in between? There is a saying that we should dress for the career we want. Well, I always say, dress for the life you want.

If you want to be an elegant woman, you need to dress like an elegant woman. That doesn’t mean there is only one set style. You can be elegant in whatever style you choose. Just be sure you are choosing it deliberately.

Elegance in the way you talk

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk. You can tell where they are from, their education level, their confidence level.

When I went to acting school, I was in a class with people from all over the United States and other parts of the world. Part of our curriculum was to learn how to speak in accent-free English. Even the students who were from Sweden and France were expected to learn how to speak in what is known as General American. If they wanted to work in American theatre, they needed to pass for American.

That’s when I realized how much you can tell about a person from their accent or dialect. My voice and speech teach started a conversation with each of us on our first day of classes, and then proceeded to tell us each where we were from in the world. It was fascinating.

I’m not suggesting you learn how to speak for the theatre — although that won’t do you any harm. Just be sure you know how you sound. I’m originally from Philadelphia, and there is a very distinct Philadelphia dialect. You’ve probably heard Tina Fey doing the Philly accent on Saturday Night Live. Each New York City borough has its own sound. Each southern state has its own drawl. People in the midwest speak differently than people on the west coast. It’s just something to be aware of. No matter where you are from you can learn to speak clearly and with authority.

Think of this when you are writing as well. If you want to be clearly understood, don’t talk or write in slang or jargon that others may not understand. And think before you use profanity. It can be used as an exclamation point. But is it elegant? There is usually a better way to phrase things.

Be gracious. Say please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me, and all the niceties that make up polite language.

When you enter a conversation with someone new, don’t spill out your whole life story. Too much personal information can be awkward. Some people chatter when they are nervous. Be mindful about your conversations. Be open, but maintain your privacy and keep an air of mystery. You’ll be much more interesting I guarantee.

Elegance in the way you act

How you behave and treat others can tell a lot about you. If you want to learn how to be elegant in social situations, start by watching people you admire. How do they behave? How do they present themselves? How do they conduct themselves at dinner? How do they treat the people around them? Some people naturally have a way of making everyone around them feel comfortable. You can learn a lot by watching people you admire for their elegance.

Be respectful of other people’s personal space. Don’t get right up into someone’s face, stand too close to them, or touch them, unless they extend their hand for a hand shake.

Learn how to eat well. In business and your social life, you will likely be put into situations where you eat, whether you are at a meeting, a restaurant, or a cocktail party. Learn proper table manners. Even if you are dining casually or are at a picnic, you can still eat with elegance. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Avoid reaching across the table for the salt. Don’t order the messiest, most gigantic meal if you are trying to impress someone. Learn how to use the proper utensils if you are invited to a formal event. Be kind to wait staff at restaurants, and tip well.

And please do not pull out your phone.

Don’t Stress About It

This may seem like a lot of rules to worry about, but if you want to elevate yourself, you need to practice these etiquette tips until they become second nature. Then you will be at ease with yourself, and can cast an elegant figure in social situations.

If you concentrate on making others feel comfortable instead of thinking about how awkward or shy you feel, you will be well on your way. Shy people feel like everyone is watching them, when in reality it is all in their own head. Be generous with your time. Learn about the other people in the room. Try to put them at ease, and in turn that will put you at ease. And that is how to be elegant in social situations.

Click here to read the entire Elegance Series.