In 2005, university professor and communications expert Dr. Beverly Langford published The Etiquette Edge: The Unspoken Rules to Business Success, to positive reviews. Fast-forward a decade, and Langford has once again stepped into the spotlight with a second edition of her book, The Etiquette Edge: Modern Manners for Business Success. In this age where manners in business seem nearly extinct, I was curious to know why someone would invest the energy to publish a second edition on the topic.
What follows is a lightly edited version of an email interview conducted with Dr. Langford last week. You’ll soon see why she believes manners are still relevant in the workplace (and elsewhere), thank you very much.
JVM: Clearly, etiquette in the workplace has changed in the 10 years since you wrote the first “The Etiquette Edge.” What prompted you to write a revised edition?
BL: So much about our lifestyles changed with the advent of the smartphone and the explosion of social media. I wrote the first book two or three years before the introduction of the iPhone. Consequently, when we began to use these amazing smart phones, the information in the first book about cell phones became almost instantly obsolete. Further, as the newest generation began to enter the workforce, their comfort level and dependence upon technology and social media created a huge need for new guidelines.
In addition, “etiquette” isn’t a set of rules on a stone tablet. Although some absolutes may seem to apply across decades and generations, in most cases, true etiquette is just common sense about appropriate behavior. A new age requires either new rules or modifying old ones.
JVM: A common gripe in today’s workplace is the open office. It’s not practical to ask your co-worker to never make any noise. What are some practical suggestions for learning to work together in open pods?
BL: There’s noise, and then there’s noise. Certainly, you don’t want colleagues to whisper, but neither do you want them to shout, slurp their drinks, or make you have to listen to their intimate conversations with a spouse or partner. Companies that opt for an open office should conduct some effective training, and then monitor general behavior and require people to observe agreed-upon behaviors. Here is where the practical “do unto others” concept should loom large. An ongoing reality check should remind each of us not to do the things to others that annoy us in the workplace.
The reason I said that the company should accept responsibility for monitoring these situations is that the company made the decision to go with an open office. When you put the burden of resolving untenable situations on an individual employee (for example, what to do about Suzie with her loud cackling when she’s on the phone?), then you create an adversarial event that, no matter how diplomatically someone tries to handle it, will still probably offend the cackler.
If the company chooses not to create or enforce workable guidelines, you may have to handle the issue yourself. Let the person know that you are on a deadline, under stress, or perhaps suffering from a migraine, and tell him or her that you really need quiet surroundings. You probably can’t demand that environment all the time, but most people will be willing to cooperate in a specific set of circumstances. Put the responsibility on yourself rather than appearing critical of the other person. “I’m so tired that I’m having trouble concentrating” rather than “You are talking too loudly on the phone.”
When all else fails, noise buffering headphones are a good alternative. The disadvantage, of course, is that you may fail to hear the things you should be hearing.
JVM: In what ways do our devices create barriers between people that have etiquette implications?
BL: Etiquette is all about respecting others (while taking care of ourselves as well). In many cases, our devices have become both a crutch and a hiding place. We send an email because we don’t want a face-to-face encounter. We want to avoid getting “stuck” on the phone with someone. Indiscriminately using our devices can send a negative message (“I’m texting because I really don’t want to talk to you.”) or provide a barrier to connecting with others. Notice the next time you get on an elevator. How many people grab their phones and stare at their emails or Facebook postings to avoid even making eye contact with others. Particularly, using these devices in meetings speaks volumes about the importance one puts on the discussion.
JVM: How do you convince people that etiquette isn’t a quaint, outdated notion?
The origin of the word seems to come from an Old French word that meant “ticket” or “billet.” In other words, it was a voucher that indicated someone was reliable and would behave appropriately. So, rather than a collection of prissy rules, etiquette should be based on common sense and regard for others. As far as being “outdated,” true etiquette is constantly changing to accommodate the change in culture. If a rule of etiquette truly doesn’t make sense (I don’t mean that you just don’t like it), then you should feel free to discard it. For example, not many people today believe that men should always open doors for women. Rather, we open doors for our fellow human beings.
If someone believes that the rampant rudeness that permeates our society is somehow preferable, then perhaps that person will eschew etiquette as outdated. However, many people conclude that behaving courteously and respectfully in a rude world can be a competitive advantage.
Further, when you find yourself in a situation where you need to know the rules of the game, if you have been practicing them all along, you don’t have to stress about whether you are doing things right. You can concentrate instead on the situation at hand and be a star.
JVM: Our nation currently has a presidential candidate who apparently thrives on put-downs and a general lack of civility or courtesy. Many people in our country voted to put him in that position. What does that say about us as a society?
Many people, unfortunately, see courtesy as subservience and rudeness as toughness, power, and strength. We lament the concept of bullying, but we often gravitate to the person who seems to have the upper hand. In many cases, our society values the loudest voice, and social media, unfortunately, allows people to be rude, abrasive, and even cruel without consequences. We see multiple examples of rudeness on talk shows, newscasts, and in sports—not just in politics. When we see a particular behavior enough times from enough people, it regrettably becomes the new normal. Obviously, this direction concerns me. That’s one reason I wrote the first book and developed the current edition.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this book for the purposes of the review. Also, the link in this post is an affiliate link, which means if you buy the book, I may receive a small commission. Please use your best judgment to determine if the product mentioned in this post will meet your needs.