Professional Manners

27 Jul

Every week I write about something that rankles me. Yes, I am a grumpy person (no, not really).  So here’s this week’s dose of griping:

Ever wondered why manners came into being? It’s because of people who don’t have the common sense to behave in a way that will not annoy or inconvenience those around them. Yes, manners differ according to cultural contexts but ‘good manners’ as a concept evolved universally for that reason alone. Some people simply don’t have the sense, sensitivity or lack of selfishness to not literally or figuratively step on another’s toes without those cultural injunctions.

Of course, over time, some of those ‘good manners’ became institutionalized in certain sections of society which then becomes a stick to beat someone else with. “Gasp, you used the third fork instead of the second one for that course. You bumpkin.”

Er…  No! That’s not what good manners are about. Making another person feel inadequate or out of place is in fact bad manners!

Rules on etiquette go a long way back. Right back to the start of human civilization in fact. Soon after they started cooking their meals instead of eating them raw, some of the more finicky cavemen noticed that a few of their brethren were still tearing, chomping and gulping their food in a most unbecoming manner. So they evolved some ‘table manners’, or rather cave floor manners, to ensure harmony. That way, spat out bones and skin didn’t fall on another person’s body, grossing him out or making him reach for his club to settle the issue. Makes perfect sense and all to the good.

Only each generation feels the need to ‘improve’ on its predecessor’s and so after several thousand generations of human ‘civilization’ now, we have a number of absurd rules on ‘good manners.’ They are extensive enough to fill books. Several in fact, and they have been filled; if ever you have read any of these you would know – most of it is utter rubbish.

Down the line of human evolution, good manners have evolved from common sense to nonsense.

Just for an example, I am a teetotaller so I don’t particularly care if it’s a red wine glass or white wine glass I am drinking from – especially as what I am likely to be drinking from it is orange juice. And if that offends your fine sense of ‘manners’, well tough.  If as is more likely, you are going to use the opportunity to smirk at me for not knowing my ‘fine dining’ etiquette, even more tough.

I believe in good manners yes but I believe those manners are defined by not annoying / upsetting other people unnecessarily; not by some arbitrary rules dreamt up by some jobless aristocrats, especially aristocrats from a completely alien culture and then imposed on us. So go ahead and judge me. I am judging you too.

Anyway, to get back to my original point…

Every culture evolves etiquette rules according to its environment and needs. And so there is a whole ‘office culture’ out there with certain rules on etiquette to make colleagues and visitors comfortable.

  • Rule No 1

If someone walks into your office and you happen to be the only one in, you don’t ignore the visitor and go on chattering on your phone for hours on end. It is bad enough if it is an important professional call you are on; you could after all smile politely at the visitor and indicate to him / her to have a seat in the meantime. But it is very much worse when your giggling and coy remarks to the party on the other end indicates to the visitor  that you are very much on a personal call – on the office telephone during office hours.

I don’t think anyone should have to actively teach anyone this basic piece of office etiquette but since I have run into this problem again and again, in places ranging from bank managers’ and doctors’ offices to minor staff working in my own place of work, let me lay it out for you:

You can’t completely ignore visitors to your office just because you are on a call!

I simply can’t understand how bank managers and private hospital doctors got to their positions if they displayed this kind of attitude throughout their careers. You might expect this behaviour from giggly young freshers using the office telephone to take free calls to their significant others, but well placed professionals?

And that by the way is by no means an excuse for the giggly young fresher. Please perk up or somewhere down the line you will pay for it. Not all visitors are meek enough to put up with it. As a matter of fact, many of them are not. You just might get away with it as a bank manager but it is very unlikely the same leeway will be accorded to a young receptionist.

Let me share with you the story of one of my friends who was taken on as ‘front office staff’ by a private corporation too cheap to employ a separate receptionist. The innovative designation meant that she had all the normal duties of a receptionist in addition to being an all-round girl Friday.

The other thing about cheap companies is that they don’t provide orientation programs or training courses for young school leavers. So there you are fresh out of school, your first salary doesn’t cover your bus fare to work and you are in a whole new environment with no guidelines whatsoever on what the etiquette expected is.

You will learn ‘on the job’ though. That’s the Sri Lankan way. As soon as you do something you shouldn’t have, your boss or an office senior will yell at you in front of as many people as possible and then it will register with you in a way that you will never make the mistake again. That’s management, Sri Lankan style.

If you are a Business Management or Human Resources student reading this and thinking, “Hey hold on, that’s not how it works,” throw your text books away and trust me. That is how it works in most places here. Managers might prefer international qualifications over local ones but what happens in office, including management styles is quintessentially Sri Lankan.

So to get back to my friend’s story, she was answering a call when a visitor walked in. Both answering calls and greeting visitors was part of her job.

She had been told that much. Hooray for clear cut guidelines. What she hadn’t been told was what to do when occasions arose for the necessity of doing both at once. Since she was already on the call, common sense might have dictated to her that she smile politely at the visitor, indicate she was busy and gesture him to please take a seat in the meantime.

If the call took too long as this one apparently did, she might have even politely excused herself to the caller to ask the visitor what he needed. However as the wise Voltaire noted, “Common Sense is not so common.”

Hence she completely ignored the visitor, an important looking elderly man for the next 10 minutes, as she concentrated on the call. The visitor turned out to be a VIP, highly regarded by the Managing Director of the company, whom he had come to see on a professional call.

The MD when he came to hear his esteemed visitor had been kept waiting, and even more unforgivably ignored while waiting, flew through the roof. There are many people out there who will make it into middle age without learning never to ignore this basic piece of office etiquette but my friend is not one of them. She came home in tears that day.

Spare the rod and spoil the child, most Sri Lankan parents believe. Most Sri Lankan managers believe the same except that they use verbal rods and their victims are a little more grown up.

Now why do I seem to be advocating this sort of violence (I am not) and what exactly is this rant about?
Well I was kept waiting nearly 20 minutes by some silly girl on the phone, who blithely ignored my presence to flirt with her boyfriend on the other end. It would have been only the work of a few seconds to attend to me. All she needed to do was give me directions to a certain senior person’s office in the building and I am still smarting with annoyance over the incident.

What was that? It’s not polite to rant this much over a minor incident? Especially to people who have nothing to do with it?

Well, I never was good at remembering all those rules on etiquette.


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