OH, BEHAVE! A guide to modern office etiquette

By ALEV AKTAR, New York Daily News – 08/10/2000 – 12:00am


New Yorkers are notorious for their rudeness. Often brusque and unhelpful, they wear their surliness with pride.

But while the city once reserved its attitude for tourists, unpleasantness has now spread to the workplace. There’s a bad- behavior boom, and foul language, boorish antics and indiscretions have become acceptable during business hours. And it’s not just dudes who are rude – there are plenty of women acting out as well.

“We’ve lost control of the situation,” says Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival, a consultancy based in Los Gatos, Calif., and the
author of the upcoming “Business Etiquette for Dummies.” “We’re busy and stressed out, and people are unsure of how to act. Swearing has gotten worse, as has interrupting people during meetings, shooting co- workers down and being late. The pendulum has swung too far.”

Drawing the line

Allison would be the first to agree. The successful film producer cringes when she remembers her drunken shenanigans at an office Christmas party. First she slammed money down on the buffet and told her boss she’d pay him $5 to eat a fish eye from a dish. Then she collared her other boss, whom she knew to be a recovering alcoholic, and urged him repeatedly to have a drink.

“I just wouldn’t let go of it, I really insisted,” she remembers with horror. “Luckily, he didn’t give in. But the next day he was politely
distant, and I was beyond mortified. And it was the day that they handed out bonuses, which made it even worse.”

Luckily, Allison’s higher-ups were fairly understanding, and she didn’t stay in the job long anyway. But in Frank’s case, the crudeness came not from him, but his old-school boss.

“We were at a sales conference and everyone from the lowly assistants to the executives went out to dinner,” recounts the editor. “My boss had a few too many and he made us go around the table and say whether we prefer breasts or butts. The women had to do it, too, and at least one female assistant was really upset.”

While these incidents are shocking, there is no denying that there are benefits to the new rudeness. Many people would agree that office
interaction is less stiff and more jovial than ever. And what could be more fun than swearing and telling indecent jokes with office mates? But when taken to an extreme, bad behavior can be degrading.

Ann Humphries, the extremely well-mannered president of Eticon Inc., an etiquette consultancy for businesses based in Columbia, S.C., agrees that some of the standards needed to be relaxed. “They were repressive, irrelevant and pretentious,” she points out. “For example, why should we put our napkin in a chair when we’re going to leave the table but plan to come back? That’s just silly.

“However, some of what’s going on is just coarse,” she continues. “I do seminars all over the country and profanity is one of the top rude
behaviors. It’s semi-appropriate in certain settings, but I think it’s a good idea to learn when to use it and when not to. That shows nuance and versatility.”

“The worst type of language is sexist or derogatory,” says Gloria Petersen, president of Global Protocol, a training seminar company based
in Chicago. “It can be demeaning from a gender, cultural or religious perspective. Television has given permission to use bad words, and young people grow up and think that’s the correct behavior.”

For Petersen, the most uncivil age group is the under-35s. She blames their discourteousness on a lack of training from parents and relatives and bad influences such as TV and movies. Yet it’s not just kids who are rude.

“Some of the older people have gotten sloppy,” she notes. “They know the rules but they’re not practicing them.”

What’s the best way to deal with office jerks? Kill them with kindness.

“Don’t respond to rudeness by lashing out,” advises Fox. “Rise above it and you’ll come away looking better. If you do want to say something, calm down first and then confront the person.”

She also reminds people to keep their personal lives to themselves. “It’s a huge mistake to talk about what happened the night before on your date.”

And remember to steer clear of gossips. “If you get trapped in your cube, you can tell the person that you’re in the middle of something,” says Fox. “If it’s gossip about you, then nip it in the bud. You can say, ‘I’ve heard that you’ve been discussing things about me that are untrue and I’d appreciate it if you stopped.’ And don’t forget, people who gossip are usually insecure.”

Learning corporate charm

Fox, Humphries and Petersen all run what can be described as charm schools for professionals. Fox’ one-day seminars on business etiquette and entertainment run about $1,200, while Humphries asks for $3,500 for a day course.

“In my seminars, I define the rules of behavior that are appropriate,” says Petersen, who charges about $3,500 for her corporate day course. “A lot of people think that etiquette is rigid rules of behavior, but it’s really about putting other people at ease.”

Which brings us to the other type of savoir faire that’s required in New York: learning to deal with unusual or uncomfortable situations.

Whether it’s the diversity of the workforce, the high concentration of oddballs or misuse of all the new technology, the city seems to manufacture a lot of drama. And sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to say or do.

Take Daniela, a fashion editor at a daily newspaper here. Last year, she got engaged and proudly showed off her Tiffany Etoile ring in the office. Her co-workers oohed and aahed and inquired about Mr. Right, only to hear her say, “Actually, it’s a she.”

Even though they had no reason to be embarrassed – after all, an engagement is usually to the opposite sex – they were. And many felt uncomfortable asking followup questions about the wedding.

Daniela, however, was understanding. “I was open about the ring because I wanted to validate my relationship. If people feel weird or uncomfortable about it, I’m certainly willing to answer questions. I think it’s my job as a gay person to demystify stereotypes.

“Some people didn’t even miss a beat and said, ‘That’s great! How long have you been together?’ But with one person, it turned into a whole
conversation about me being a lesbian. Another person said, ‘You’re so pretty, I can’t believe you’re gay.’ And one woman steered clear of me after she found out.”

Petersen’s advice to the uncomfortable is simple: Learn to be open-minded. “When you get into situations that violate your belief system, you should try not to be judgmental. Try not to show your discomfort or make a slur. It’s their choice and they have a right to it.”

Mind your electronic manners

Although sticky social situations should be assessed and dealt with on a case-by-case basis, one way to avoid a great many is by keeping your E-mail clean. Dan didn’t, and could have lost his job.

It started when he sent a brainstorming memo to the owner of his dot-com firm and was annoyed when he received an officious, generic response thanking him for his input.

Later that day, he parodied the response in an E-mail and accidentally sent it to half the company via the cc function. “I wrote something
like, ‘Thank you for your misguided suggestion. We welcome input from all employees, no matter how feeble-minded.’

“The highest person it went to called me later that day,” he remembers. “I could tell she was weirded out by my message, so I suddenly became really interested in the project she had mentioned the day before and I managed to distract her.”

Although Dan was able to recoup, he could have avoided the problem in the first place by obeying the golden rule of etiquette. Respect people and treat them the way you want to be treated. That and offer assistance, show appreciation, be a good listener, honor your commitments, use breath mints and always wear deodorant.

IS SEXY OFFICE TALK TABOO?

‘Sex and the City” devotes entire episodes to sex acts that taste bad. The President cavorts with a cigar and an intern. As raunchy topics move mainstream, what’s okay to discuss in the office, and what’s not?

Etiquette expert Gloria Petersen maintains that anything sexual in nature is off-limits, even if it’s headline news. “Talking about sex causes discomfort and can lead to legal situations,” she says. “It’s just unprofessional.”

Peterson also puts the kibosh on “anything political, religious, degrading, sexist or any topic that is controversial in nature and will
force someone to take a stand.”

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