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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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Webinar Gives Staff Confidence to Manage Mingling

August is New Year’s in higher education. By month’s end, the majority of schools are back in session and advancement teams are already involved in a tide of fall special events that entail managing mingling including football tailgating, alumni reunions, fund-raising programs, and student recruiting receptions. Hosting guests and making them feel welcome is one of the fundamental jobs of advancement professionals but “working a room” is a skill that isn’t natural and doing it well can take years of practice. These days, most people are far more comfortable texting than they are talking to the living, breathing humans standing nearby. This includes our own staff members, especially if they are newcomers to our profession.

Special events are some of the most effective tools for building personal relationships, but they are also one of the most expensive. When guests attend an event without being greeted, made to feel welcome, and encouraged to deepen their involvement because someone actually took the time to engage them in conversation and get to know them, events are simply a waste of resources. The obvious per-person cost of food and beverage notwithstanding, special events carry a large cost in planning, staffing, and follow up. But the irreplaceable fact that makes events worth doing is that they offer one-on-one relationship building opportunities far more powerful than any online campaign.

We’ve all experienced events where staff huddle talking to each other rather than working the crowd, or they make certain the boss sees them, then load up at the buffet and finally melt away without interacting with anyone. I’m not talking about just rookies. Senior staff are equally guilty!

As American culture has become more casual, many people have arrived at adulthood without knowing how to socialize in a crowd. This doesn’t mean they aren’t willing, it just means the opportunity to learn hasn’t been available. Giving staff tools for self-confidence through training is a proven way to boost performance and maximize ROI whether they are attending a board meeting, or mingling at a black-tie gala.

A perennial exercise of each new school year is holding planning “retreats” and training workshops to indoctrinate newcomers, update continuing staff, map out goals, and energize everyone for the work ahead. This is the perfect time to train your staff by honing their interpersonal skills which in turn will give them the confidence to take the lead in social settings.

Essential skills include knowing how to shake hands properly, make a self-introduction, introduce others, mingle while balancing food and beverage, enter and exit a group, enjoy conversation, and dress for the occasion.

This summer I recorded a webinar, “Conferences, Receptions, and Cocktails,” for the Council For Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), that covers these and other pertinent topics relevant to the variety of the occasions we encounter on campus. I encourage you to consider incorporating it into your fall retreat. Doing so will provide staff with the self-confidence to do their jobs, and help establish a standard code of conduct for your advancement team. The webinar is posted at case.org and is complimentary to members. Log-in at www.case.org and go to Publications and Products, Store, under Product Type, find Webinars.

Best wishes for much success in the new academic year!

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Be A Polished Meeting Leader

Much of a meeting’s effectiveness boils down to manners (or lack of them). A well-managed meeting increases productivity and runs smoothly, largely because the meeting’s chairperson and participants know their roles. Here are some tips for chairing a meeting.

The first step toward meeting success is having a clear purpose and knowing what you want to accomplish. Define the meeting’s objective, and then determine who needs to attend to accomplish it. Invite only the people necessary to fulfill the task. Not only will a smaller group speed things along, people appreciate not having their time occupied unnecessarily.

Schedule the meeting for early in the day, so people can stop on their way to work. This strategy lets you harness participants’ creativity while they are fresh and energetic and helps ensure attendance because you catch people before they get bogged down in problems at their own offices.

Set an agenda and distribute it beforehand via e-mail. Include background information that will help make the time spent together more productive.

Select and prepare the meeting room for maximum comfort. A room that is brightly lit and cool will help keep people from becoming drowsy. Check the room arrangement by actually sitting in different locations to be certain everyone can see and hear. Cue computer slides, videos, test Wi-Fi connections, and conference-calling gear. Know what to do if equipment malfunctions or, if you are in a hotel or conference facility, how to contact the on-call AV specialist. Practice dimming and turning on lights. Thoroughly test sound equipment, including all microphones, and adjust volume levels. Tape electrical cords (especially those around the podium) to the floor for safety.

Offer beverages such as water, sodas, coffee, and tea. Other refreshments are not necessary unless the meeting will be long or encompass a meal time.

It is the chairperson’s responsibility to introduce people to each other and to tell them where to sit.

If your meeting is formal or will involve unfamiliar people, prepare each person a name plate that can be read by others in the room. Assigning seats also gives you the opportunity to strategically seat people together or to tactfully keep adversaries separated. Remember that the second most important person present should be seated on the chairperson’s right.

Begin on time, and don’t interrupt progress by stopping the proceedings to fill-in latecomers. Instead, keep the meeting moving, and bring those who are tardy up-to-date after adjournment.

Don’t allow phone calls or interruptions, and politely request that cell phones be silenced.

Set the tone and establish control by delivering a crisp welcome and very brief overview. Stick to the agenda, and guide conversation to keep things moving on track. Limit circuitous discussion and disagreements and don’t let the meeting disintegrate into bickering or aimless rambling. Settle differences by taking a vote, or if an issue cannot be resolved, assign the subject to a sub-committee for further study.

As chairperson, see to it that people speak in turn and that everyone has a chance to contribute. Call on quiet people to encourage their participation, and tactfully cut off a windy person’s lengthy remarks, especially when they are inappropriate or off-subject.

Take minutes, and distribute them via e-mail before the next meeting. Minutes serve as a reminder of who promised to do what by when.

Next week: Polished Manners for Attending Meetings