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Why Manners Matter

Evaluations are in from a presentation I made to a group of young professionals, all new to university advancement and eager to start raising money and promoting their schools.

My talk was about business etiquette and included skills such as how to introduce yourself and others, shake hands, initiate and sustain conversation with strangers, and manage food and beverage so that it’s easier to do your job.  After all, fund-raising is about building relationships and much of that is done in a social environment such as a reception, dinner, meeting or conference.

One woman rated my presentation as “poor,” stating that time could have been better spent on “content relevant to the emerging generation of advancement professionals,” noting that social skills are old fashioned and that “country club manners” are not needed. What’s more, she said, they are sexist. While I respect her opinion, I hope time and experience will change her mind.

Mastering these fundamentals is not about being a snob or memorizing social customs of bygone eras, rather it is about building self-confidence and making others feel welcome. It is not easy to dive into a room full of strangers and start conversations, especially when guests represent multiple backgrounds, generations, and will likely include people from other countries. Etiquette creates a common framework in which people can interact so that everyone feels welcome, respected, and valued.

It is not hard to understand why this person would deem manners to be irrelevant. Incivility surrounds us. It clogs the political system, it causes us to shout, call names, be greedy, pushy, self-centered and suspicious. Incivility closes our ears and minds depriving us of the opportunity to benefit from melding ideas and differing points of view to forge a stronger whole. It erodes our way of life and even threatens our liberties.

The saying, “You are what you eat,” is true and for the past 25 years (approximately her entire lifetime) we have ingested a non-stop diet of bad behavior that has led to a steep decline in courtesy. Things that used to shock us (like the use of the f-bomb, crude potty references from Congressmen, leaders having public tantrums, or people showing up at work looking a disheveled mess) no longer do.

Instead of teaching children how to interact with others, we’ve taught them to withdraw because of “stranger danger.” Television news has devolved from reporting to angry people spewing slanted opinions. We’ve spent a decade glued to the television to see what outrageous things dysfunctional families will do to each other, who the bachelor will dump, or which person will be fired or voted out of the competition. People no longer seem able to separate entertainment from reality and instead mimic these rude, crude, mean behaviors in their daily lives.

The absence of public figures who serve as positive role models exacerbates the effects of our bad behavior binge. Incivility reigns everywhere from the local school board to the halls of congress and is becoming accepted as the norm. With a president who calls people names on Twitter, belittles those who disagree with him, and a pop culture that worships the gods of “me first,” and “in your face,” it is easy to understand why a young adult who has only seen these examples would find consideration for others to be irrelevant.

While not the cause of the decline in our interpersonal skills, the digital revolution is also a contributor. For the many great benefits of technology, the downside is people no longer need to expend the energy to interact with those around them. Instead, we use our devices as defensive barricades, studying them with intensity when we want to avoid engaging with others. We wear ear buds to send a “don’t talk to me” message and we use the anonymity of social media to shoot comments into cyberspace that we would never have the courage say to a person’s face. We battle tech neck, gamer’s thumb, and email eye because of our device addiction. We can order everything from airline tickets to groceries without ever having to talk to a human, and when we’re bored, our devices offer ample entertainment options and will even explain the choices. Why would we ever need to interact with anyone in person?

Through the decades, politics, cultural, and economic situations have always caused the manners pendulum to swing back and forth between periods of formality and times of little manners whatsoever.

There is no question we are in a period of social change, but I believe that this climate makes it more important than ever for us to reconnect as individuals by learning and practicing common courtesy and respect for others.

I, too, started my career in an era of cultural change and lack of civility. The nation was struggling to regain its footing after the Vietnam War and the resignation of a president. Fueled by the then new idea that women could be more than coffee fetchers, I firmly intended to change the world by junking most of what I had been taught, beginning with stodgy social customs.

What I didn’t realize then is that civility is the glue that holds our society together. It is what we are missing today. It is the practice of courteous self-control that gives us the ability to listen respectfully to another point of view and to disagree without being disagreable. It is the kindness of deferring to an older person. It is willingness to think of others before ourselves. It was formerly the grease that allowed the wheels of our democracy to turn and that gave legislators the self-restraint to effect compromise.

Civility and manners are timeless marks not of class or status, of “good” or “bad” people, but of leadership and humanity.  Contemporary manners are not an exclusive, elitist social code intended to exclude others. Rather, they are the lingua franca that allows us to transact our societal and interpersonal business in a global society and achieve great results.

Today’s etiquette is not that of 25 years ago. Instead, contemporary business etiquette has evolved to be gender neutral. It is not sexist like old-fashioned social etiquette, but rather, it is empowering because it levels the playing field with a defined set of norms under which we all can all operate equally regardless of religion, race, culture, gender, sexual preference, or socio-economic upbringing.

Polished manners are an equalizer that gives people the confidence of never having to feel ill at ease in any social or work situation. What’s more, using manners costs nothing and may even yield a payback—the satisfaction of knowing you have been kind to someone else.

These are the reasons we practice and study etiquette and why the effort is relevant to today’s generation of advancement professionals. None of this is unimportant or old-fashioned. Rather, it is essential to our cultural survival.

 

 

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Maximize Holiday Mingling

Year-end brings a flurry of opportunity for holiday mingling at receptions, programs, and other entertainments to thank donors, congratulate December graduates, celebrate with employees, and welcome the New Year. In our office, December 1 begins a string of entertaining that continues non-stop until the last graduate leaves the parking lot after commencement on December 10. Universities spend thousands of dollars and hours of staff time to make certain each guest list is accurate, the program is perfect, the décor sets the right tone, and the food is delicious in order to thank and impress guests with an eye toward affirming or deepening their future involvement. We’ve got event logistics down pat, but are we getting the most out of our staff involvement?

Too often advancement and other university staff, such as deans and vps, attend functions only to congregate in a cluster talking to primarily to each other, or appear just long enough to have a drink and nosh on prime catering before mentally checking the “I did it” box and making an early exit. Meaningful engagement between staff and guests is the only way to garner ROI on any kind of event, but it is especially important during year-end gatherings when giving is in the air and people are in a charitable mood.  Here are some tips to help your team maximize their effectiveness:

Be clear about the event’s purpose. Who is the audience and why is this function being held?

Review the proposed guest list before invitations are issued, adding new prospects and subtracting people who have moved, elected officials who are no longer in office, and cleaning up data base land mines like names of former spouses still linked to their exes, or worse, names of people who have died.

Always take Rsvps and assign advancement staff to greet and spend time with, a specific list of guests. Staff should research each person on their list to understand each guest’s interests, history with your school, and his or her current involvement. Make certain staff are aware of significant occurrences in guest’s lives such as a recent death in the family, or happy news, like a job promotion or child’s graduation.

Notify the deans and other ranking personnel about which of their key constituents, donors, or prospects will be present.

Require advancement staff to arrive no later than 30 minutes ahead of the event starting time. This ensures school representatives are present to greet guests as they arrive.

Be certain advancement staff know details like the locations of food, bars and restrooms, what time the program will begin, and where to put coats.

Brief staff on what to do in case of emergencies such as sudden illness, falls or fainting, or the need to evacuate.

All advancement staff should be up-to-date and ready to converse on school happenings ranging from athletics teams’ records to the latest news on research projects.

Keep cell phones out-of-sight and concentrate on conversing with the guests.

Because many people are sensitive about their reputations, particularly if they are attending an event where alcohol is being served or that might be associated with a political point-of-view, never take photos of guests without their permission, especially if the intention is to post images online.

Staff should not enter “behind the scenes” areas such as the kitchen or prep rooms. Having extra people in these areas impedes workers and, depending on local ordinances, can also constitute a health department violation. Besides, staff belong with the guests, not hiding backstage!

Require advancement staff to remain until the event is over, otherwise, guests can be left without university representatives with whom to converse.

The next business day, conduct a debriefing with your team to collect information resulting from the conversations they had and to develop next-step action items.

For more tips on how to work a room, download my CASE webinar, “Conferences, Receptions, and Cocktails” at www.case.org. Click on Publications and Products, Store, and under Product Type, find Webinars. To arrange an on-site customized training for your team, contact me at april@aprillharris.com.