As I See It: The Dog Ate My Manners
by Victor Rozek
Being human is a clumsy thing. Our minds are limited, our emotions are messy. The hurtful behaviors and petty rudeness we inflict on each other provide daily evidence of our inability to maintain equilibrium and civility during times of stress. And stress, like the evidence for global warming, is on the rise. Whether it's the erosion of middle class jobs, unaffordable health care, or living on the Gulf Coast waiting for the next hurricane to blow your house down, modern life offers no shortage of reasons to rage.
Like the bumper sticker says: If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.
If stress begets rudeness, then rudeness begets a litany of books by outraged authors decrying the nation's lack of manners and bemoaning the moral decay of the country. (My favorite ethical scribe is Bill Bennett, who routinely lectured Americans on issues of moral fortitude until it was revealed he was a degenerate gambler who, unbeknownst to his wife, had lost millions in Vegas.)
In the workplace, incivility has risen with the declining fortunes of the middle class and rudeness, as studies show, has huge clandestine costs. People react to it by holding the company responsible for failing to maintain a civil workplace environment and punish their employers by limiting their commitment and productivity. In short, when people are treated badly, they stop caring, and when they stop caring, they stop performing. If so, then employees are probably reflecting the lack of care and respect that corporations have shown them in recent years. What goes around travels full circle.
And the issue of civility is not limited to the United States, either. In Britain, at least five books on manners are awaiting publication this year, and even the formal and outwardly genteel Japanese have become so appalled at the rising level of public rudeness that commissions have been appointed to study the problem.
While business consultants universally agree that maintaining good workplace manners has a bottom-line value, the dearth of manners, according to Richard Tomkins, writing in the Financial Times, does not mark the end of civilization as we know it. In fact, Tomkins thinks that today's incivility may be an improvement on yesterday's feigned formality. "If there is any correlation at all between good manners and human decency," he writes, "it is probably inverse."
Tomkins argues that the people complaining loudest about incivility are the Baby Boomers, the very generation that cut its teeth by biting the establishment. Fortified with combustible consciousness expanders, it was the boomers who promoted disdain for all forms of authority and dressed alike while railing against the evils of conformity. When the boomers were directing incivility at their elders it was, well, you know, heavy, man. But now when it is directed at them it's like a major bummer.
The younger generation apparently could care less. Perhaps because they haven't learned to be phony yet.
While Tomkins acknowledges the usefulness of manners--"They are the lubricant that allows large numbers of people to live together without turning against one another"--he also points out that they fluctuate wildly over time and are influenced by culture and context. The manners exhibited at a stag party, he argues, are somewhat less refined than those displayed on the wedding day. So, he concludes, "being neither universal or constant, they lack legitimacy and are left looking suspiciously like etiquette-a bunch of silly rules with no particular purpose other than to allow those who follow them to frown upon those who do not."
The word etiquette speaks of a bygone formality no longer useful in most social contexts. Few people care what fork you use as long as you don't bring one to work and stab somebody. Tomkins argues that a slavish devotion to manners often masks extraordinary cruelty. "In the 20th century," he writes, "people have been frightfully polite, but somehow found time between minding their Ps and Qs to subjugate women, oppress minorities, and torment gays. Oh yes, and thanks to a couple of World Wars, the Holocaust, some atomic bombing, and the totalitarianism of Mao and Stalin, they also managed to exterminate a sizeable chunk of humankind."
Given a historical context, one could certainly conclude that manners are overrated. Then as now, they often serve as a social slight-of-hand, a misdirection which masks boorish behaviors and allows them to operate below the radar. Ken Lay of Enron is perhaps the best known well-mannered assassin, but he is by no means the only one. Who has not heard of the glad-handing executive who walks through his factory reassuring workers one day, knowing full well he will lay them off the next. Or the manager who will not tell his employees the difficult truth but blind-sides them at performance evaluation time. Or the friendly employee who assails your reputation behind your back. As the song says, beware of "Smiling Faces."
Good manners can be used to hide intent and mask true feelings. Their pleasantness is offset by their frequent insincerity. The real issue is not whether people exhibit manners, but whether they are behaving authentically. Authenticity, even if occasionally unpleasant, is preferable to good manners if they are an illusion. It's better to know where you stand than to live a fiction.
Authenticity, however, is not always welcome at work where conformance is king and doing what you're told trumps saying what you think. The cost of employees withholding their truth is unknown and immeasurable, but it must be huge. I once worked for a company that spent years and millions of dollars in an attempt to migrate from midrange systems to a mainframe environment, with little success. Almost everyone in IT agreed the move was unnecessary and given the lack of in-house expertise, likely to be long and difficult. But no one spoke to the issues, not wanting to challenge top management or risk being regarded as not being a team player. When people believe that being phony pays dividends, some will gladly leave their spirit in the car when they arrive at work in the morning. We did, and the prices we and the company paid in stress, illness, lost jobs, stilted productivity, wasted capital investment, and unproductive time, contributed to the company failing and eventually being sold. As Alfred P. Sloan Jr. observed, "Bedside manners are no substitute for the right diagnosis."
The choice is to be authentic and risk offense, or be phony and risk losing your self. The office is not a place that commonly embraces a broad and flexible sense of life's possibilities. Typically, it demands a narrow focus (the job), and a narrow world view (the one held by the company). To the degree that manners contribute to keeping us small and constricted, they are misapplied. When they flow from authenticity, however, manners are a behavioral manifestation of the respect we hold for our colleagues and customers.
And for ourselves.
Casting stones from behind a wall of manners is ultimately futile. Once people discover you're a phony, nothing else you say ever matters again. The message is lost in the muddle. Like good old Bill Bennett, the bookmaker of virtue, the more money he lost, the more stridently he lectured others on the need for probity. Small wonder he never wrote a book on authenticity--he preferred living the pretense. And it became his legacy.
"Politeness," Able Stevens said, "is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts." If so, then authenticity sometimes requires choosing unwisely.