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Miss Manners vs. Business Casual

Has the American workplace become too informal? Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, takes business casual to task, starting with Jack Welch. A Harvard Business Review excerpt.

The workplace has become a much less formal environment over the years. Suit and tie have been replaced by business casual in many offices; ideas are encouraged to flow up and around as well as down; the CEO sits in a cube. But is this lessening of formal relationships in the office a good thing?

No, it's not, argues Judith Martin, who has been dispensing etiquette advice for more than two decades in the voice of Miss Manners. Harvard Business Review's Diane L. Coutu sat down with Martin recently to discuss the issue of workplace etiquette. Here's an excerpt.

Diane L. Coutu: Is etiquette in trouble at the workplace?

Judith Martin: An inevitable and unfortunate part of the "I want to be me" movement has been the idea that there is no distinction between your business life and your personal life. People treat colleagues as friends and family—often to disastrous effect. Sexual harassment is a prime example. If you flirt with somebody at a party, that person can't have you arrested. But if you flirt at the office, it could cost you your job. Well, flirting at work has always been unmannerly. The distance of formality should make it obvious that office flirtation is wrong. But because people don't care about etiquette anymore, we have to use the law to make them obey. That is not trivial for the people involved. An exposed office flirt was once just a cad. Now someone who misunderstands the limits of office friendship could become a criminal with a record. The problem with many of today's workplace issues is that they are too subtle and nuanced for the law, which is a very heavy-handed instrument. But if people don't obey the rules of etiquette, we have no choice but to use the law.

The pseudo-friendliness, personal e-mails, and office collections for the umpteenth bridal or baby shower have destroyed the sense of boundaries that characterizes professional behavior.
— Judith Martin

Unfortunately, the pseudo-friendliness, personal e-mails, and office collections for the umpteenth bridal or baby shower have destroyed the sense of boundaries that characterizes professional behavior. If we hope to reassure our customers that we are indeed professional, we need to be aware of those boundaries. But in our relationships with colleagues, we also need to acknowledge that we are often too distant from our coworkers to be able to resolve problems on a personal level. At home, if your stereo is too loud, your partner feels free to say, "Honey, will you turn that thing down? It's driving me crazy." And you will know him well enough to answer, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were trying to read." But at work, if the person in the next cubicle is being loud, you can't really solve the problem with that sort of exchange, because the worker in the next cube is not a friend of yours. That's where office etiquette comes in. Setting formal limits to behavior reduces the chance of conflict from the outset. Rules decree whether or not you can play music or take personal calls in open space. We need such limits to keep people from upsetting one another unnecessarily.

Interestingly, the kind of professional demeanor I am arguing for is found in people who are having an affair in the workplace and don't want anybody to know about it. They often keep that formal aloofness.

Q: You talk a lot about setting boundaries. But Jack Welch often spoke about making General Electric boundaryless. Do you think he was wrong?

A: Yes. My views are the exact opposite of Mr. Welch's. I want formality back so we can all regain some dignity. Besides, employees were never taken in by all that talk about informality. On one hand, the boss was firing people; on the other, he was saying, "Oh, we're just like family." And employees thought, "Oh no we're not!" Now, I know some executives believe that informality will help put more flexibility and truth into the system. But I am one of those people who believes that we have quite enough honesty in the world, and I'm not looking for more. Oddly, in today's social realm, honesty seems to trump every other moral value. Truth has become so overblown in situations of criminal wrongdoing that people will say, "Well, I don't mind that he did this or that, but then he lied about it"—as if the lie were the worst part, which it is not. I'm not recommending lying, but I am saying that you have to judge a lie within the context of other values. And whether you are in a business or a social setting, it is not valuable to go around all the time spewing your own truths, which are often mere opinions. Of course, there are times when honesty is terribly important, and certainly in a fact-gathering situation in an organization, honesty is critical. But let's face it: It isn't etiquette that keeps people from telling the truth to the boss, it's the fear of losing their job. We all know what the boss likes. If he's the kind of person who wants you to tell him what's going on, then you're going to keep him well informed. But if he hired you as a yes-man, then it isn't etiquette that will hold you back from getting the facts across. After all, there are polite ways for employees to raise issues. You don't necessarily have to say, "I think you're stealing." Instead you might say, "We're having a little trouble. The office supplies keep disappearing."

Q: You also disapprove of business retreats?

A: Absolutely. I sincerely hope that we're seeing the end of retreats. This personalization of business relationships is misguided. For one thing, it's expensive to have people climb poles or shoot at one another with paint guns. But the more depressing thing is that it's taken us half a century to realize that when you remove everybody's inhibitions, you create more problems than you solve. Regrettably, the whole retreat thing started with touchy-feely consultants who believed that if we all loved one another, then good behavior would follow. Whatever made anyone believe that? Think about it: People marry because they love each other, and good behavior doesn't necessarily follow. People love their children, and good behavior doesn't necessarily follow. Love is no guarantee, and we certainly don't love everybody in our business environment. At the height of this retreat business, I was president of the board at my children's school. One gentleman kept proposing a retreat until finally I said, "You know my dear sir, you and I disagree on every possible issue within this school. But I give you the benefit of the doubt because I assume your good intentions, and I don't know you that well. Do you want to remove all doubt?" That was the end of that. But I tell people who find themselves sitting around a campfire with coworkers, forced to reveal something personal about themselves, to limit their comments to something like, "I was fat and shy as a kid" —because that's charming. Or, "I didn't like my freckles." Whatever you do, don't reveal too much. You will come to regret it.

Q: A final question: As America goes global, other countries fear that we will bring our culture and manners with us. What is so bad about American etiquette?

A: One problem we have is that other societies learn American manners through movies and television. But movies enact conflict; conflict is at the heart of drama. So learning American manners from American films is like learning traffic rules from watching car chases. In reality, we don't allow speeding on our streets. We don't allow people to careen down the road the wrong way, knock over a fruit stand, and jump over a bridge. But if you watched American movies, you would think we did. To be fair to Hollywood, if they had to produce well-behaved movies, people would be bored senseless. And in truth, we don't lack manners—we just have a lot of rude people, as does every country. The Japanese, for instance, who have a very complicated code of etiquette, are having trouble getting their children to follow the rules. The British have horrendous problems with bad manners at all levels of society, from soccer hooligans to the royal family.

I want formality back so we can all regain some dignity.
— Judith Martin

In our case, many violations of etiquette are actually exaggerations of our virtues. Our loudness, for example, reflects our friendliness. Or take the American tendency toward casual dress. In more-hierarchical societies, leaders had to create sumptuary laws to prevent people from getting too competitive about their appearance and clothing. In England, they introduced a tax on wig powder to discourage the conspicuous consumption of the upper classes. By contrast, the principle in America is that we have no class distinctions, so everyone can wear the same type of clothing. Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and our antihierarchical instincts have also eroded some very legitimate hierarchies within society among young and old, boss and employee. That erosion has repercussions that more traditional societies can't stomach.

It is important to distinguish between the theory and the practice of etiquette. America has—in theory—the best code of manners the world has ever seen. That's because it is based on respect for the individual, regardless of his or her origin. Good manners in America are about helping strangers. They're also about judging people on their qualities rather than on their backgrounds. These are principles that were deliberately worked out by our founding fathers to assure the dignity of the individual and to keep society nonhierarchical. Is this theory true in practice? Of course not; it's a work in progress. But let us not forget that every day, more and more people wake up to the fact that they do not have to be limited by the circumstances of their birth. What's so bad about spreading that?

Excerpted with permission from "In Praise of Boundaries: A Conversation with Miss Manners," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 81, No. 12, December 2003.

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Diane L. Coutu is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review.