We all slip up occasionally. Maybe we don’t respond promptly to every e-mail message, or we swear under our breath from time to time. Do we need to worry about the finer points of correct behaviour?
Let me answer that question with a polite “Yes.”
In an age when offices have given way to cubicles and or remote/home offices, when electronic devices keep us in constant communication, and when the boundaries between our professional and personal lives are dissolving, we need the rules of etiquette more than ever.
Etiquette, after all, is a code of conduct that allows us to live and work together with relative ease, fosters good relationships, and reduces the social frictions that impede our happiness and even our professional success. Knowing how to behave in a wide variety of professional settings not only makes you a more pleasant, confident, and enjoyable person to work with; it also provides you with all-important tools that will help propel you and your company toward your mutual goals.
Let's face it we’re all fumbling with a wider cultural confusion that has left the workplace riddled with etiquette land mines. Whether you blame resistance to relaxing the old rigidity of behaviour or ignorance of traditional businesslike behaviour, everybody seems to be getting on everybody else’s nerves.
Indeed, social mores are changing so quickly and home and office becoming so intertwined that even the most mannerly are probably confused. Thus the staying power of the etiquette advice genre (Erasmus put out a book on good manners for boys in 1530—no fidgeting, no scratching).
But how do you deal with the petty annoyances of the modern workplace? What do you do when the colleague in the neighbouring cubicle breaks out a smelly lunch?
The rules of work are changing. Does that mean that the basics of good manners are changing, too? Emphatically not. Good business etiquette is not a set of ‘rules. Business etiquette is little more than common sense driven by being considerate, respectful, and honest with others in your business life.
Manners are “the principles of courteous behaviour” and etiquette “the rules that apply to a particular situation.” So manners don’t change, but etiquette evolves. Once you understand that, you can pretty much figure out the rest.
See etiquette as sociology, that business etiquette exists to maintain personal dignity and to show respect for others to maintain a pleasant demeanour without invading others’ privacy; to balance competitiveness with cooperation; to take responsibility but remain flexible; to be both attentive and discreet, and to combine honesty and tact.
Etiquette lays out the rules of sensible living. It helps us be less annoying and, to be venal about it, get what we want. It can save us from the quotidian nuisances of office life. Most important, it allows us to redraw the boundaries that define civility and ensure our sanity.