Politeness, courtesy, niceness, manners. I find these qualities missing in many aspects of contemporary business. People increasingly just don't see the need to bother with this stuff.
I was reminded of this as I re-read a fine, still-zeitgeist-attuned article by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal from several years ago titled, We Pay Them To Be Rude To Us. Ms. Noonan states, "American culture is, one way or another, business culture and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy."
Noonan says the social implications of this are making us confused and crazy. "We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn't pretty." She describes a revolution in manners. "We tore [manners] down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore."
We live in a world that is increasingly disrupted, inchoate, and hurried. The idea of manners may seem quaintly arcane and vestigial in our rushed and changing world. But I actually find simple manners more needed than ever in such an atmosphere. We need them just as we need road signs. They are practical guides for daily business, not prissy, artificial affects of a dead past. Formal manners are a business skill and one we de-emphasize to our detriment.
When I was a young actor (mostly unemployed) many years ago, before I became an accidental entrepreneur, I often supported myself as a catering waiter for high-society in New York. I worked mostly for a company called Glorious Food, the most elegant caterer then around.
Glorious Food parties were run by a very traditional and exacting maitre d' named Serge. Serge was an old-school martinet who was about doing everything with precise properness. Training to become a waiter for Glorious Food involved a long seminar where you were trained how to set a traditional table, fold napkins, correctly serve, etc. Basically, I thought this was a bunch of hooey.
But one day I found myself sitting next to the daunting Serge and got to talking to him about why we did all this minutia so precisely. He quite cogently explained to me that, as silly or unnecessary as it might seem to an American (slight disdain with a French accent), there were very good and practically efficacious reasons for why the dessert spoon is placed over the dessert fork, or why the white and red wine and water glasses were in a specific configuration. Basically it made things easier for the server and the servee. It was not arbitrary or phony. It was well thought out and imminently practical.
There is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other. It is not bullshit. It is the glue of civilization and a utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business. Manners and polite address are not superficial. They are essential. The importance of plain manners is often not taught or explained with any depth. Too bad. It is an important tool increasingly missing in the modern entrepreneur's repertoire.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay "Behavior" from The Conduct of Life (1860), "Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love, now repeated and hardened into usage." Thanks, Ralph.