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.