In his 1960 novel, The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth posed a question about manners:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?”

Either way, I can’t help but feel that they are innate. Manners – like grace or ‘cool’ – are one of those things that either you possess or you don’t: they cannot truly be feigned. They are something you evidence, rather than something you simply ‘do’: manners are not a form of karaoke. Needless to say, Oscar Wilde had a relevant quote – “A true gentlemen is one who is never unintentionally rude” – but opinions on the importance, meaning and role of manners are as variable as standards of behaviour themselves.

Alfred P Sloan, long time President and CEO of General Motors, once said that “Bedside manners are no substitute for the right diagnosis.” True up to a point, perhaps, but even a largely praiseworthy obituary in the New York Times described him as “A functional, frill-less man”. His official biographical sketch included the following passage regarding his philanthropic endeavours:

Here is Mr. Sloan’s description of what a foundation should be–a well- organized, efficiently managed business enterprise with a wholesome respect for every dollar at its disposal.”

Mr. Sloan’s prioritisation of business at every opportunity is reflected in other literature too: you may wish to read an online article, Hitler’s Carmaker: The Inside Story of How General Motors Helped Mobilize the Third Reich – or you may decide the title alone is sufficient elaboration on what it profiles as a ‘cold and calculating man’.

But manners are more than mere politeness (memorably defined in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary as “the most acceptable hypocrisy”): they are an essential ingredient of our impact on others, itself one of the primary ingredients in a team, office or organisation that works to its maximum ability. Even when delivering bad news, describing and challenging under-performance or disagreeing at a fundamental level, manners are our means of allowing the recipient to remain standing rather than lying demolished at our feet. Destroying our opposition might be satisfying or give us a fleeting sense of superiority, but the person left standing and unharmed is in a better position to make amends or reconsider their behaviour or outlook. As American etiquette writer Emily Post pointed out:

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.”

That reference to etiquette is informative: most of us think as etiquette as situational – the correct thing (socially speaking) to do in a given circumstance. Protocol, by comparison, is more abstract: the process manual to etiquette’s approach to implementation, the list of ingredient compared to the method.

If the procedural handbook is the letter of the law: manners – impersonal behaviours – are its spirit. In an earlier post about dignity in the workplace, I argued that “the conference of dignity [is] a part of the skill and craft of leadership and management”. And while I’m briefly flirting with the ill-mannered habit of quoting myself, there’s a related point we also made earlier:

The point of workplace feedback is to make a positive impact, not to leave a dent.”

Manners, in the sense of modifying your behaviour to suit both the situation and the people that you are interacting with, are how we adapt to and accommodate each other. (Alfred Sloan and Emily Post, for example, would suggest a very different bedside manner being required.) If we avoid brushing each other up the wrong way, we can deal with the situation at hand, without having to additionally smooth the coat or unruffled the feathers of the person we have – wittingly or not – disconcerted or offended.

Manners help us come together in partnerships and teams, and support the building of trust: as American writer Katherine Gerould once observed: “Conventional manners are a kind of literacy test for the alien who comes among us”. To be insensitive to ‘us’ is to be marked out as ‘not one of us’. The ability to implement our manners comes from our ability to read social and interpersonal clues and signals, and to understand the protocol. I can think of an example from personal experience where a company got it wrong – an example more striking as many others had got it very much right.

In the days following a family bereavement, there is a large amount of paperwork to attend to it bringing the deceased’s affairs into order: it’s a necessary but potentially unpleasant task, that the vast majority of organisations deal with commendably by recognising the sensitivity of the timing and the information for those that are contacting them. The ‘offender’ was, ironically, a life insurance company: an organisation whose business is built almost entirely on the fact of our mortality. Not an organisation you would expect to transfer your call several times, make you repeat the information each time, and finally connect you to a call centre that obviously worked to a script and was located somewhere where the etiquette of dealing with recently bereaved clearly follows difficult guidelines to those of the UK. It wasn’t actually rude: no criticisms were levelled, no bad language was used. But the organisation clearly failed to see that its matter-of-fact, abrupt, tightly scripted tone was going to be read as rude. (Especially when organisations not highly venerated for their charm, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, perform the same function with admirably sensitivity, tact and clarity.) There was also another thought that had clearly not crossed their minds: that the living are the ones that take out new life insurance policies, and that they talk to each other.

Where we are seeking to be iconoclastic or ground-breaking, or are operating in unfamiliar cultures (or cultures that we personally perhaps find hide-bound or stuffy), there is greater danger of creating difficulties. There’s a flipside to finding yourself to be the person who’s “not from round here, are you?” that was beautifully captured by Bertrand Russell:

Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.”

As that implies, there’s a close relationship between manners and communication: we hold our individual values firmly, as we feel them to be part of our identity. As it is difficult for us to separate the two, anyone who wishes to point out a drawback with our values, must be careful to make the fine and subtle distinction that enables us to see that is not us per se that being criticised, whether explicitly or implicitly. Sometimes there is a greater good to be served in causing a little offence – the phrase “it would be rude not to tell them” is probably familiar? – but the task is harder when the communication is not crystal clear.

Nor is the selective application of what we might think of manners a helpful approach: if we are inconsistent, we are soon seen as ‘unfair’. Whether or not our audience believe if metaphorical forms of compass, they will swiftly doubt our moral logic. Manners are about behaving appropriately, and the appropriateness is not just ours to judge. As Jonathan Swift put it:

Nothing is so great an example of bad manners as flattery. If you flatter all the company, you please none; If you flatter only one or two, you offend the rest.”

Manners are about more than saying grace: they are about having it.