15 Social Protocols for the Working World
by Lucy E.M. Black
As a writer of historical fiction, I am happy to own Social Etiquette: or Manners and Customs of Polite Society, published in 1878.* Books like this serve me well as useful references for nineteenth-century life, and, while some chapters of this book are obscure by today’s standards—Soirees, Musicales and Lawn Parties, or Bicycle Teas, or When to Wear Jewels—many of the suggested approaches to etiquette in daily life are still completely practical. Lessons from the past for the present!
A young man I know is currently learning how to finesse his management style. He is discovering that not everyone he encounters in the workplace shares his work ethic, his values, or his commitment to task. Since I am a woman “of a certain age,” he has told me that very little of the advice I have to offer is apparently “relevant to his context” (a subject best reserved for another article). And so, for him and for anyone else, I share these tried-and-true rules from my old book, in the hope that the advice they offer will be recognized as an entirely contemporary guide for managing relationships in the world of work. We Silver Sagers have a lot to offer the younger geneartain—whether they realize it or not!
- “Learn to govern yourself and to be gentle and patient.” It’s often a challenge to be patient with others when you want to complete an important task or project, but in order to establish a respectful working environment, this piece of advice is crucial. Staff will not share issues with someone who flies off the handle when there is a problem situation. You need to encourage openness in the workplace, and patience is key to this.
- “Guard your temper, especially in seasons of ill-health, irritation, and trouble, and soften it by a sense of your own shortcomings and errors.” As much as possible, leave your personal life and worries at home.
- “Never speak or act in anger.” Count to ten, bite your tongue—whatever it takes. This is tough, and, when provoked, I have often forgotten this and come out fighting. Not a good move, and one that requires apologies and damage control afterwards.
- “Remember that, valuable as is the gift of speech, silence is often more valuable.” Or the old adage: We’re given one mouth for speaking and two ears for listening.
- “Do not expect too much from others, but forbear and forgive, as you desire forbearance and forgiveness yourself.” And if you’re in a leadership role, never ask anyone to do something that you haven’t done or aren’t prepared to do yourself. It’s so important to lead by example.
- “Never retort a sharp or angry word. It is the second word that makes the quarrel.” Don’t try to outsmart or out-power a colleague. You may win the battle, but you will likely lose the war.
- “Beware of the first disagreement.” Okay, I admit I’m not sure about this one. I think it means we need to guard our relationships and not compromise them by our actions.
- “Learn to speak in a gentle tone of voice.” This is one of the easiest ways ever to demonstrate respect and caring for another person. It helps to establish a positive culture.
- “Learn to say kind and pleasant things when opportunity offers.” Everyone has their own story, and we never really know what people are dealing with in their personal lives. Kindness can change a person’s life.
- “Study the characters of those with whom you come in contact, and sympathize with them in all their troubles, however small.” Take a genuine interest in your colleagues. Learn their strengths and their weaknesses so you can support them and help them to develop their skill sets.
- “Do not neglect little things if they can affect the comfort of others in the smallest degree.” Be thoughtful of others. Another old adage: The devil is in the details. Meaning: sloppy work always catches up with you and bites you in the behind.
- “Avoid moods, and pets, and fits of sulkiness.” Very simply, be the grown-up in the room!
- “Learn to deny yourself and prefer others.” There’s a great management book by Simon Sinek, entitled, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. It’s a book I have found profoundly useful in its discussion of how to build trust by sacrificing your own comfort for the good of your team.
- “Beware of meddlers and tale-bearers.” Avoid the people who love the drama created by stirring the pot and avoid gossips at all costs.
- “Never charge a bad motive, if a good one is conceivable.” Or always assume the best in people.
I enjoyed a long career as a corporate trainer, educator, and education administrator. Among my qualifications, I have a university certificate in personnel and industrial relations. I’ve taken countless courses and read dozens of books on leadership and management styles, but these fifteen simple guidelines summarize the very best of all of those experiences and lessons learned.
*Maud C. Cooke, Social Etiquette: or Manners and Customs of Polite Society (Boston: George M. Smith & Co., 1878).
Artwork by Steve Johnson (Valpairaso Indiana USA), @steve_j
Lucy EM Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket (Inanna Publications), Eleanor Courtown (Seraphim Editions), and Stella’s Carpet (Now or Never Publishing). Her award-winning short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and magazines in Britain, Ireland, the US, and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer, and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in a small lakeside town north-east of Toronto. The Brickworks (Now or Never Publishing) will be released in the Fall of 2023.