Beverly Langford’s book on modern manners in business, “The Etiquette Edge,” is full of memorable tips and observations. Many are specific to a situation or mode of communication, while others are more generic. One of the most striking appears in the section on business travel: “Treat everyone as though you were going to have to spend the rest of your life with that person in a very small room.“
This seems good advice for most human interaction, not just business travel. It captures a fundamental reason for behaving well: it’s catching. If you treat people with consideration, they may well return the favor, making your life more comfortable. It can also help you professionally.
“Courtesy can actually give you a competitive advantage,” says Langford. “You can stand out in the crowd among seven billion people in a good way, rather than being noticed for the wrong reasons.”
Somewhere between those seven billion people and the “very small room” of her maxim lies the average workplace, where a lot of people share space for many hours every day.
In our Expert Interview podcast, Langford talks me through some dos and don’ts related to manners in the workspace, starting with a reminder of some of the basics.
“As much as possible, you need to be aware that that desk, or that space, is still someone’s office, albeit a very easily observed space. It’s still their space. The same things apply as if you were coming into someone’s office that had walls and a door,” she points out.
“When you walk up to someone’s desk, ask them if they’ve got a moment, is this a good time, just as though they were in a private office. If you see that someone is obviously deeply involved in something, working on something on the computer or looking very stressed, then you may want to put that off for a few moments.“
As well as thinking about others, think about yourself, Langford advises. Unwittingly, you may be annoying your co-workers in any number of ways.
In Langford’s experience, most complaints from people working in open offices are about either noise or smells.
“Either people are too loud, and you’re forced to listen to sometimes intimate conversations, or people wear too much cologne or aftershave, or in break rooms people fire up the microwave and cook something that may not smell exceedingly good to everybody else,” she reports (politely).
The responsibility for minimizing such annoyances rests with each team member, who should stop and think about his or her impact on colleagues. For example, if you’re planning to make a call and need to be at your desk, give your neighbors a heads up about it, so they can be prepared for potential interruption.
But managers also have a role to play, Langford believes, stating, “It shouldn’t always be up to the employee to have to do the policing.” There should be guidelines on certain activities that might disturb others. For example, people who sometimes need to talk loudly or privately should have a place to do so.
“If companies are going to have open space, the architecture ought to include some private rooms where people can take conference calls, and can have conversations that they don’t want everyone to hear,” Langford says.
When the issue is a bit more personal, involving distracting smells for example, should managers also intervene? Let’s say a few people have complained about the strong perfume of a particular team member.
“The way I would position that… is that, when you function in a group, you may not be able to do things individually quite the way that you would like to do them, and to the extent that you would like to do them,” she says.
“There’s always that tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of the group, and, in my opinion, if you explain it effectively and come at it very compassionately… most people are going to respond [well]. And if that person does not respond effectively, if that person gets very adversarial about it, then that tells you something about that employee’s attitudes about other things as well.“
How to behave around co-workers is one aspect of business life where manners make a difference. Another is written communication, and particularly emails. In this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Langford offers several tips on doing it right.
How do you encourage good manners in your team? Join the discussion below!