Staff Picks

Minding Your Manners

Sally Haldorson

September 26, 2013


Sometimes it seems like business has two faces. One is ruthless; ambitious people are encouraged to be relentless, take-no-prisoners assertive. The "soft stuff" is considered just that: soft.

Sometimes it seems like business has two faces. One is ruthless; ambitious people are encouraged to be relentless, take-no-prisoners assertive. The "soft stuff" is considered just that: soft. The other face of business is traditional, a sort of wait-your-turn systemic passivity. Regardless of how you manage your own career--with teeth or with your nose to the grindstone, one thing you don't want to do is flush it down the toilet by making a preventable etiquette misstep. Two current books can help you stay on the right track and protect your good name by improving your manners. A good manners, as our mothers counseled us, can open a lot of doors. Released this week, Miss Manners Minds Your Business by Judith Martin and Nicholas Ivor Martin, is a humorous but practical guide to improving our manners, in the office, at the help desk, in our emails, at our homes. The authors make this bold statement: "The two big lies of the modern workplace--that the old hierarchies are gone, so that all employees are equal, and that these new "teams" are as bound together by friendship as by the accident of employment--have tangibly transformed offices. Walls and doors kept disappearing as the open office plan, divided only by small, flimsy, and moveable partitions took over." And the removal of identifiable boundaries requires some adaption...and some new rules. What is at risk if we don't begin to adjust our behavior to this new environment?
All these problems are symptomatic of wider cultural confusion that has left the workplace riddled with etiquette land mines. Whether you blame resistance to relaxing the old rigidity of behavior or ignorance of traditional businesslike behavior, everybody--not only between junior and senior groups, but within them as well--seems to be getting on everybody else's nerves.
Miss Manners' solution to this "etiquette chaos?" Not to go back to the 'old days' where good manners hide any number of sins, but to value what good etiquette and courtesy can do to improve our relationships in business. There is, she says, a right way to do business: respectfully. One of the problems with the new more casual workplace is that there are no boundaries, so people end up stepping all over each other while trying to be their 'authentic selves,' and putting their own needs on the back burner. and, she advises: "When attempting to enter the business world, you need to learn to be someone else. It is called having a professional identity." This is important whether you are applying for a job or just want to be a valuable employee at an organization you love. You really will find yourself engrossed by this book, even if you are skeptical about its application. Surprisingly, most of the scenarios presented to Miss Manners--in typical advice column Question-and-Answer format--are those you have gone through or wondered about. But what surprised me the most was how she walks a fine line between those two faces I mentioned above. This book can help you be both assertive as well as respectful. *** A similar book that was published earlier this year is Emily Post's Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online by Daniel Post Senning (the great-great-grandson of Emily Post) with an introduction by Anna Post. When it comes to communication these days, there is a very small raft on a lot of churning water, and it's very, very easy to fall in. Every email management system has a different way of sorting replies: get it wrong and you've sent a criticism of a customer to a customer. Every email from a manager has the potential of being misunderstood, because it is so hard to convey tone: why do you think people use so many exclamation points (!) and emoticons? Because we're afraid that we will offend. While this book differs in tone, focus, and the presentation of the material by edging closer to a standard guidebook, the advice stems from the same place: respect.
Rapidly developing technologies and new ways of communicating can challenge long-established social norms--such as not interrupting a meeting or bugging your fellow diners. However, the fundamental rules that guide all good social interactions still apply no matter what medium connects two people: Treat others with respect. Think about how your actions will affect the people around you. Be considerate of the feelings of those you interact with. Whether it is a blog or a smartphone, the degree to which new media help us build and sustain our relationships depends entirely on how well we use it.
When reading Manners in a Digital World, you will first review the basics (e.g. don't talk on your cell phone while sharing a public bathroom, and don't tag people on Facebook unless you've checked with them first.) So much of this might seem rote to frequent users of mobile devices and social media. But for anyone who is interested in learning more about how and why to use Pinterest versus Tumbler or what heck a Kickstarter is, this book offers a great shorthand lesson. The second half of the book focuses more on appropriate online behavior and usage for children and for older adults who might not know the risks or boundaries at play. Truly, this book seems best for that audience as an introduction to all things digital. It also covers some of the advantages of using mobile devices and social media: the successes of online dating and the great amount of support that can come from all over the globe when you are going through tough times.

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