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Miss Manners Goes to Work on Politesse

The etiquette expert offers some advice on how to be an adult in an uncivilized, adolescent world.

May 10, 1999|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, has been explaining since the debut of her 1978 column how people can remain civilized in an uncivilized society. So who better to detail ways to remain an adult in a juvenile workplace? Her newest book, "Miss Manners: A Citizen's Guide to Civility," will be released in June.

In it, a would-be civilized worker can find a chapter titled "Etiquette Goes to Work," in which she writes:

"Of the people who have failed to notice that proper manners for employees and their bosses have changed in recent years, a disproportionate number appear to be bosses. Miss Manners cannot pretend to find this odd, but she does find it disturbing. It is one of the fundamental principles of manners that responsibility for treating people well increases with the degree of one's authority over them."

But recognizing that things don't always go as they should, Miss Manners offered The Times some ideas on how employees can politely deal with an impolite employer.

Question: What happened to the notion of a civilized workplace? Didn't it used to be better?

Answer: The difference is that there was a layer of professional manners on top of everything that people were expected to conform to. It's amazing how much better and more pleasant that can be than, "Oh, just be yourself, let's all pretend we're friends"--let-it-all-out behavior. There's always a tension at the workplace, but one thing that's changed is the lack of professionalism and another thing that's changed is the lack of expectation of spending a good portion of your working life in the same place, in which you don't want to make too much of a mess because it will come back to you.

Q: Is the situation getting better or worse? And what does this say about our culture?

A: That sort of phony pretense that we are all friends and the concept that it's better to express your personality than to observe the formalities of the workplace--what does that say about us? It says we are sweet and naive because it's all based on this extremely sweet and extremely naive idea that we're all at heart lovable, that anybody can get along with anybody else if only they don't allow any barriers to stand in the way--and it doesn't work. It's very idealistic and well meant.

In the workplace, there is a hierarchy and we're not equal. A lot of effort has been put into disguising this, into "Oh come on, we're all friends, we're all a team," and so on. Well, your friends don't fire you, and they don't reprimand you and they don't have control over your life in the way that your supervisors and bosses do. So the formality of, "This is the way you behave and you can't go any further, and this is the way I behave and I can't go any further" helped to define a workable relationship. It wasn't friendship, but it would be a workable relationship.

Q: Where does adult adolescent behavior at work come from?

A: We have a juvenile setup that encourages it. I'm not saying you wouldn't have people who were immature in any work situation, but it would be disguised in a workplace where people were supposed to use the manners of grown-ups, were supposed to address one another formally, were supposed to stick to talking about business, were supposed to look the part of someone who was seriously at work and not at play.

We've encouraged it. We have a juvenile atmosphere--parties in the office and little jokes and nicknames and gossiping all the time. I don't know why we should be surprised that people take advantage of that.

Q: So now what do we do to regain a civilized office environment?

A: There is progress actually, in that people recognize the problem. It's not [a matter of going] backward. In the manners of the past, there were a number of people who were treated with disrespect and as children--women being the prime example. They were called by their first names but expected to address other people formally and that sort of thing--so it would be a tremendous mistake to go backward. Professionalism is not something that was a historic fad that we should dig up again. It is the logical way for people to behave in a working situation.

Unfortunately, the things that are now getting us back into professional type of behavior are the lawsuits that occur from the lapses--you have a party atmosphere at the office and pretty soon people start to flirt and somebody's charging sexual harassment because there is no proper place in the workplace for treating people as you would at a party.

Q: So you have hope?

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