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Pardon Me, Boss, but Your Manners Need Some Work

Etiquette lessons, given at the office, may be good for business.

April 01, 2002|SUSAN GREGG GILMORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the young stockbroker sat down for a trendy power lunch, he flipped his Hermes tie over his shoulder and positioned his elbows squarely on the table. He chewed his food with his mouth open, and after buttering his bread, licked the knife clean.

More than one client who endured a meal with him complained to the company's president. And soon this well-educated but socially inexperienced professional found himself enrolled in a remedial workshop learning to not blow on hot food, not to use a toothpick at the table and not to dip his fingers in the water glass. More important, he learned that good manners mean good business.

Pamela Hillings is the corporate etiquette consultant who was called in to retrain the L.A.-based up-and-comer. For almost 20 years, Hillings has taught Southern California executives from Universal Studios to Bank of America the do's and don'ts of correct social behavior, giving them, she believes, a visible edge over the competition.

"Good manners really do affect the bottom line," said Hillings, who happily reports that her former student is no longer self-cleaning the silverware but gracefully climbing the corporate ladder.

Every generation remembers a day gone by when people knew how to act with grace and civility, when words like "please" and "thank you" were part of the native tongue. Stories of today's business professionals clipping their toenails at their desk or brushing their teeth at the office drinking fountain seem incredible, but are, according to the experts, sadly true. So, do Americans really think that as a nation we are less concerned with the rules of social conduct than we were even a decade ago?

Yes, ma'am, we do.

As we set the table for the 21st century, we believe that we treat one another with less respect and courtesy than in the past. In fact, according to a survey by Public Agenda, the nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, 73% of Americans are convinced we are less considerate.

People increasingly see themselves dealing with encounters of rude behavior and incivility, according to Jean Johnson, one of the survey's authors. Road rage ranked as the first complaint in focus groups conducted in cities of all sizes.

Unfortunately, except for police-documented cases like those of road rage or workplace violence, no scientific data exist to support this gut feeling that we're just not as nice as we used to be.

When Hillings signed on with RBF Consulting, one of the largest engineering firms in Orange County, to work with the company's managerial team, the goal was to give the employees confidence in social situations.

"If you are entertaining a client and are worried about whether you're using the correct fork or not, then you're not completely focusing on the business at hand," said RBF's Trinka Burdick, vice president of human resources. "We want our people to have that confidence, that extra edge."

Professional men and women compete today in a global economy. As the world changes, so does our code of conduct. Every generation creates new rules to deal with its specific issues, whether it is single parenting, women in the workplace or international etiquette.

Therefore, manners must be fluid, said Peggy Post, the manners maven now at the helm of the family's etiquette dynasty. It was Peggy's great grandmother-in-law, Emily Post, who wrote the renowned book of manners in 1922, making the unspoken rules of high society available to everyone. Now, more than 75 years later, the Post family continues to guide Americans through all sorts of social occasions from weddings and dinner parties to the often-forgotten thank-you note.

As the Posts prepare the 17th edition of the original handbook to be released next year, they want to know what breaches in protocol bother you the most. Surveys currently posted on their Web site at www.emilypost.com query readers about everything from e-mail to voicemail.

Responding to readers' concerns about workplace behavior, Peggy and her brother-in-law, Peter Post, co-authored "The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success" (HarperCollins, 1999), touching on every business situation from the hiring and firing of employees to traveling abroad. Etiquette does, in their opinion, make the difference between getting ahead or not, disavowing the myth that nice guys finish last.

Peggy Post is the first to acknowledge that a long list of rigid rules gives good manners a bad name. "Etiquette is really about how we treat one another," she said. It is a combination of common sense, kindness and consideration.

According to the Emily Post Institute, 59% of Americans would rather visit the dentist than sit next to someone talking on a cell phone in a movie theater. There is a time and a place for everything and a church, restaurant or movie theater are definitely not the place for a cell phone conversation.

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