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Posts Tagged ‘Etiquette’

I almost hit someone this week, my Gentle Penguin.

I had pulled into a parking spot at a popular lunch venue near my client while I finished a conversation with my daughter who had just finished taking the PSAT.  We were discussing her morning and the logistics of the rest of the day—a day filled to overflowing for me.  In fact, it was already close to 2pm, and I was just then finding a moment to break for a quick lunch, a lunch I wouldn’t get to take as I noticed the clock moving quickly toward my next meeting time.

We finished our conversation, and I hung up, put the phone down and checked my rear-view mirror for cars.  Despite the late lunch hour, there was still a steady stream of traffic flowing through the parking lot.  However, after about four cars, I saw a break and began to back up.

It only took a moment for the rear alarm to sound and for the woman’s yellow sweater to come into my line of vision.  I hit my brakes hard but was sure before they finished their job I would hit her.

Somehow I didn’t.

She sort of gasped and kept walking at her normal speed while two or three of her friends hurried up to make sure she was alright.  One of them, a short man, glared at me.  And I sat perfectly still wondering, quite honestly, how I had not hit her.  But that was Wednesday.  It’s now Friday morning and I’m still thinking about that moment…after I had not hit her, after she had gasped, after her friend glared at me.  And I wonder.  No one said a word.  Neither she nor her friends yelled at me, nor apologized, nor did anything out of the ordinary after that brief moment of concern.  Likewise, I didn’t apologize, nor check to make sure she was okay, nor do anything out of the ordinary.  In fact, I went about my day with the motions as if nothing had happened.

True, nothing HAD happened.  But still, it had.  It was one of those rare moments when I realized just how much every choice, even every movement can result in change, how even the most insignificant reflex could cause significant consequences.  And that revelation weighed heavy on me the rest of the day…well, truth be told, it still does.

But it seems, I wasn’t to bear this revelation .  There’s a flip side to that coin, and I found myself staring at it only four short hours later.  A woman sat in a room filled with a bunch of other men and women and admitted she was self-conscious of her smile.  She hated her smile.  In fact, she hated it so much that she went to great lengths to keep from smiling.  That’s when the woman sitting next to her giggled and patted her on the arm.  “OH!” she exclaimed, “that’s why you always seem like you’re angry.”

“What?” said the woman who hated her smile.  “You think I seem angry?  I’m not angry.  I just have an awful smile.”

“Let me see,” said the second woman.

The first woman obliged and smiled so genuinely that we were all taken aback by how much the smile changed her appearance…from old to young, from severe to lively, from someone to be avoided to someone we’d want to talk to.

“Wow!,” said the second woman, “You have a great smile!”  Everyone chimed in in agreement, even as the first woman’s protests grew—how crooked her teeth were, how dingy they were, how her lips were too thin and uneven and how wrinkles deepened in her cheeks and neck when she smiled.  We didn’t see any of that.  And we told her so.

Finally, the second woman laid her hand on the first woman’s arm and said gently, “when you smile, I want to give you not only a job; I want to give you everything, including my friendship.”

We were stunned.  The first woman was stunned.  Then she asked the question that must be asked, “does something so small as a smile really make that much difference?”

The answer is an unequivocal “yes!”

I was still thinking of the woman I had almost hit during that conversation, and even yet still two hours later when the woman who hated to smile came back into the meeting room where I was tidying up, preparing to leave.  She had been there that evening to learn networking tips in preparation for a series of high-powered networking events starting that very evening after my presentation to this group.  She was there because she needed a job and was trying.  And she was smiling.

“Pardon me,” she said a little shyly, “I feel like I must tell you something.”  I smiled my public speaking smile full of wattage and sparkle and nodded to encourage her to continue.  “During your presentation you said something about moving around the room hoping to bump into someone.  Well, I couldn’t stop thinking about something my dad used to say to me.  ‘If you don’t want to change, don’t move.  If you don’t want to grow, stand still.  But sooner or later something or someone will probably bump into you and change will happen anyway.’  Who knew something so small as a smile would be the bump I needed.”

Perhaps my almost bumping a woman in a parking lot at a popular luncheon venue on a busy day was a bump really meant for me.

Even now, early squirrely Friday morning, I am haunted by that thought…as I hear my new neighbor’s car door shut and think still of a woman I almost hit, as the wind rattles my window pane and I think of the crazy fast pace of my days of late, as my dog snuggles closer to me after I shift under the covers and I think of how a smile can change a life.  So many bumps in my night, so many bumps in my life.  And my life goes on…changing.

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I’ve just finished reading about the Merry Affair, and I must say, THIS is an affair to remember, with a crucial etiquette lesson.

Snapshot of the event:  the young nation, not even 10 years old, has a new president–Thomas Jefferson, who desperately wants to make sure that this new nation doesn’t become a monarchy.  He abhors the old ways and purposefully goes out of his way to squelch anything resembling European.  He is building a capital in the middle of the swamp with designs that reflect Roman influence.  Roman influence is what Jefferson designed the country after politically anyway. 

Enter the Merry’s–a newly married couple acting as ambassadors for England.  Anthony Merry presents himself to Jefferson for a formal introduction, as was the protocol.  Jefferson receives him in his…well…his pajamas!  Next evening, Jefferson hosts a formal dinner for the introduction of Elizabeth Merry.  When the dinner bell rang, Jefferson slights Mrs. Merry by escorting another woman (despite the other woman’s protests) to dinner and seats her in Mrs. Merry’s spot.  By doing so, Jefferson disarranges the entire seating structure leaving people to “scramble for a seat.” 

Jefferson’s new etiquette begins being emulated by others in the government, much to the chagrin of all the European ambassadors who start sending reports home of the inconsistent, lacking-discipline order that reigns in the new “wilderness.”  Europe begins to count the number of months to the new country’s demise under this “pele mele” etiquette.

As pele mele etiquette continues, more and more gentlemen and, more deleterious to society, women are offended.  No one seems to know how to act and when to be offended.  Soon, under Elizabeth Merry’s advice, the foreign ladies begin declining invitations to formal social events entirely so as not to expose their husbands to continued embarrassments. 

Jefferson claims victory.  However, it soon becomes clear that these women weren’t just societal creatures disposable and unnecessary in the building of the new country.  The very nature of women’s society had political advantages.  Women, it seemed, acted as advisers to their spouses, shared or gathered information of use that might not otherwise be brought to light, smoothed out misunderstandings, led discussions…

Jefferson began specifically soliciting the Merry’s company in hopes of stopping this “etiquette war” that he had started.  The Merry’s, however, stuck to their boycott.  In a last ditch attempt to recover, Jefferson finally printed the new rules of etiquette and circulated them throughout the international society.  Receiving these “Cannons of Etiquette” almost a year after his formal introduction, Anthony Merry replied that “I certainly should have been presented with these rules when I arrived to take up this post.”

Ah…and so now to my point.  In order to avoid affairs, you must set proper expectations. 

I used to say that everything in life would work well if people knew how to negotiate properly.  I still believe that is true, but the key to negotiation, to etiquette, to success is setting expectations.

In my observation, study and research, most offenses, misunderstandings, frustrations, anger, hatred and other of the ugly emotions, stem from lack of knowing or following set expectations.  Etiquette, in fact, is simply following a generally understood and agreed upon set of expectations. 

Jefferson lost the etiquette war and the respect of Europe through this affair.  But his motives were not vicious.  He simply wanted to change the etiquette of his country.  He knew, rightfully, that society and politics were intimately entwined, and that should society be allowed to follow the example of the monarchies of Europe, so too soon would the politics.   His only misstep was not making that clear up front. 

I recommend learning more about this affair to everyone, but especially to two groups of people:  those who are curious about what our founding fathers really intended for our country (because democracy of today is NOT it), and those who think that history really means “his story.”  For the former, this affair, more than any other, shows an encapsulated snapshot of the early vision.  For the latter, this affair shows that women may not have been the ones writing about what was going on, but they were certainly influencing it immensely–in a feminine way.

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Do it with charm.

That was my promise to you for this blog. I promised it because it is a vital component to building professional relationships.

Merriam Webster defines relationships as “being connected.” So I resort to my physics background and switch to science for a second. According to science there are two ways to connect: force and attraction. Many of the relationship-building lessons here require you to find and use your strength. I want you to be strong. But strength is often perceived as force.

That isn’t what I’m advocating. I don’t want you to force anyone do anything.

This is something I recently had to confront personally. It seems that command was one of my top five strengths according to strengths finders. Honestly, I was upset because I pride myself on my charm. And command didn’t sound charming.

So I looked up command. It seems there are two words that mean being authoritative and taking control: demand and command. Demand uses “what is due” to claim authority and take control. Demand flows from the leader to the followers.

Command uses skill and ability to be assigned authority and take control. It usually flows from followers assigning authority to a leader. The difference between demand and command is force versus attraction. And using Merriam Webster’s definition of charm–“a compelling need or desire to draw toward”–the difference between demand and command is charm.

Etiquette is the tool that drives charm. That’s because etiquette is not about conforming to rules. Etiquette is about enhancing who you are so that others will see your strength instead focusing on your weaknesses.

Now I know that Emily Post (one of my heroines!) has published huge volumes of rules to be followed, including those that instruct you on use of forks and invitations and even e-mail. But these rules allow you to determine what is acceptable behavior so that people don’t focus on what you do wrong. Instead, by behaving appropriately, people will focus on what you do well.

And we will start next week with our language in public, better known as Monica’s No Self Deprecation Rule.

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