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Dear Gentle Worker

Judith Martin is the acknowledged arbiter of etiquette on job as well as off.

November 04, 1996|PAT PRINCE ROSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some Gentle Readers--specifically those who have not consulted Miss Manners since they last prepared for a wedding or some other social occasion involving multiple forks.

But many savvy ladies and gentlemen with more than a passing interest in the proper way to comport oneself in the modern workplace--and how to survive the insufferable boors who haven't a clue--know that Miss Manners, a.k.a. Judith Martin, has become the acknowledged arbiter of etiquette on the job as well as off.

From the bully pulpit of her syndicated column, run thrice weekly in newspapers around the world since 1978, Martin dispenses advice laced with her self-deprecating humor and gentle parody.

Increasingly, her readers have pleaded for clarification of the ever-evolving rules of the workplace, a topic that receives a lengthy airing in her new book.

"There have always been tensions in the workplace," Martin said in a telephone interview from her Washington home. "But now there are enormous tensions from the constantly shifting situations in the workplace."

These days, in fact, one is likely to find her newest tome, "Miss Manners Rescues Civilization," filed in the Business section of the bookshop, as well as on the Weddings and Etiquette shelves beside her four other volumes.

"Etiquette is the language of human behavior," Martin said. "You can have good manners or bad manners, but you can't absent yourself from it. It applies to every situation, and I think people are starting to realize that."

Miss Manners ladles out pronouncements on topics ranging from the trivial--is it OK to help oneself to the candy on the receptionist's desk?--to the serious.

Sexual harassment, bigotry, office politics, ethics, the fuzzy line between work and personal life, the pressures of trying to balance work and family obligations, the human side of forced retirement and corporate downsizing--she holds forth on them all.

Like her other best-selling books, including "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior" and "Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium," her latest is a compendium of letters and social commentary essays.

Martin, 58, who asserts that her life's ambition is "to solve everyone's problems so I can get back to the porch," thinly veils her more serious agenda. She's leading a crusade to reverse the "rudeness crisis" that she says is contributing to the breakdown of society.

Call her quaint, but Miss Manners insists that consideration and respect for self and others is still a must. Far from being an antiquated set of Victorian rules, etiquette, she maintains, is the indispensable foundation for a workable society and a livable workplace.

TIMES: What prompted you to take on the thorny issues of workplace etiquette in your recent books?

MISS MANNERS: The thorny problems that people send me, of course. An awful lot of them seem to be connected not only with the workplace itself, but with the confusion between working life and personal life.

We have developed a very peculiar habit in this country over the last couple decades of pretending that we're not at work when we are, of pretending that we're just among friends and the work is incidental.

We use the manners of friendship--first names, personal conversations, birthday parties, baby showers, after-hours gatherings, retreats, poking into one another's souls--instead of professional manners.

This has caused many enormous problems, including sexual harassment by people who think they're in a quasi-social situation. So why not flirt . . . and do other things that would be perfectly respectable at a party, but not on the job?

Or the tragedies of people who believe they are in a setting that has the kind of indulgence for them that their friends do. So if they slack off . . . or make a fool of themselves . . . people will understand their excuses, because that's what friends do.

All of this has confused people and gotten them into a lot of trouble.

TIMES:: Casual Friday is an increasingly popular trend in offices across the country. Why don't you approve?

MISS MANNERS: Because this is a terrible fraud, to say that one day of the week you . . . can wear whatever you like and nobody is looking to see if you look the part for your job.

Nobody suspends that judgment. So instead . . . people now have to have three wardrobes.

People who are sophisticated enough to understand this have a wardrobe for Monday through Thursday, the professional look, for whatever profession they're in. They have another for Friday that says, "I'm a relaxed kind of person, but I'm still high-powered and on the job."

And for days off, they get out the grungy T-shirts and sweat clothes, which no smart person would wear on Friday in the office.

It's like the office party. You're told, "This is just a party, have a good time." And you get silly and/or flirtatious and it comes back and hits you in the face that this was an office situation.

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