The messy world of work etiquette

Phyllis Korkki / New York Times News Service /

This is a very confusing time to be alive. Life is changing so quickly that unless you are a hermit without electricity, you are likely to encounter social situations in which you simply don’t know how to behave. This is especially true in the world of work.

As never before, workplaces offer an exciting range of technologies and collaborative opportunities. And while these developments can result in great new products and services, they also increase the chances that people will offend, or be offended, by one another. That’s where Miss Manners comes in.

Miss Manners, otherwise known as Judith Martin, is an advice columnist for The Washington Post who has written more than a dozen books on manners and etiquette. In recent years, she has noticed that a much larger proportion of her “gentle readers” are writing in with work-related quandaries. They are appalled by a colleague’s attire, overcome by a smelly lunch, offended by someone’s failure to respond to an email, distracted by another employee’s phone calls, frustrated by constant interruptions — and on and on.

As a result, Martin, along with her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, decided to write a book devoted solely to professional behavior. It’s called “Miss Manners Minds Your Business” (W.W. Norton), and it is both a sad and hilarious commentary on the state of the modern workplace.

As the book and her columns make clear, open-plan offices, designed in the name of cutting costs and encouraging collaboration, have become dens of intense irritation. Walls and doors can no longer protect workers from unwanted visits, along with various odors, shouts, coughs, sneezes, loud chewing, belches and people trimming their nails at their desks.

It’s also clear that many employees are uncertain where their professional life ends and their personal life begins — a confusion abetted by technology that enables them to take their work wherever they go, and to conduct personal business while at work.

In an interview, Martin deplored the “pseudosocial events” that many businesses arrange in the name of teamwork. You should be collegial with co-workers, “but they’re not friends,” she said. If you genuinely become friends with someone in the office, by all means spend time with them, she said. But too many managers are dragging entire groups to retreats, dinners and after-work drinks, and to events where some people mistakenly think they should be able to behave just as they would at a normal party, she said. Martin suggests that workers who dread attending social events try to bow out by saying that they have work to do.

“Forget all this business about making everybody love everybody else,” she said — it’s taking up time that could be spent getting work done, and it’s a drain on people’s finances and personal lives.

Just as physical walls have come down, so have the psychic walls that used to give people a distinct professional identity. One sign of this is the increasingly casual clothing that some people wear to work, Martin said. She favors some form of professional dress code, while pitying the person who must institute it, knowing that some workers will say it violates their liberties. Professional attire indicates that you’re serious about your work, she said, and inspires more confidence among your colleagues and clients.

A modern-day tendency to blur the private and the professional can cause people to post inappropriate comments on Facebook or Twitter that their bosses end up seeing. Social media sites encourage so much self-advertising, Martin said, that they can make people forget that it’s actually desirable to have a private life.

One of the biggest etiquette issues today is “the failure of people to recognize the difference between public and private communications,” said Peter Post, co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” (William Morrow) and a great-grandson of the etiquette maven Emily Post. (He is one of five of her descendants devoting their careers to etiquette.)

Post urges people to adopt the “bulletin board” rule: “If you can’t put what you want to communicate on a bulletin board for anyone to read, then you shouldn’t put it in an email, a text or a voice mail.” The danger to your business relationships is too great to do otherwise.

In the end, etiquette is about building successful relationships, Post said. It’s also about respect. A good behavioral precept to follow in the workplace is this, he said: “Understand the culture of the place you’re working in, and then respect that culture.”