Miss Conduct

His and her rules

Does gender dictate who does what? Plus post-layoff work friendships.

By Robin Abrahams
July 12, 2009

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I am 10 years old. My fourth-grade teacher taught my class that girls always go first and boys are to hold doors and help girls with their coats. He says that when a girl comes to or leaves the table, boys are supposed to stand up. A lady’s job is to help the men be gentlemen by letting the men do these things. These guidelines seem old-fashioned and unfair. My mother suggested I ask you what current etiquette should be and what it may be when I am an adult? H.T. / Medway

Some people think etiquette should be different for boys and girls or men and women, like your teacher does, and some people think it should be the same for both. People who think etiquette should be gender-neutral (the second kind) still practice good manners but don’t think it should depend on who’s a boy and who’s a girl. They will hold the door for someone who has packages or who is behind them, and stand or not depending on how formal the occasion is and how old the person is that they’re greeting.

Mostly, at work or school, manners are the same for men and women. People are likely to be more traditional about etiquette in dating or social situations. So it’s good to learn both ways. Etiquette isn’t just one thing; there are different manners for different situations -- just like you have different clothes for school and soccer and church. Since you asked, though, I do think manners are changing. Probably by the time you are an adult most people will practice “same for both” manners, except for a small handful of people who don’t and are very angry at the people who do and write letters to people like me about it.

I worked at a large multinational company that is outsourcing its finance positions to Singapore. This means that many of us who used to be friendly co-workers are now looking for similar positions, with similar pay scales, in the same location. What are the rules of conduct for this? Is there any way we can maintain friendships, or does the demise of our positions also mean the demise of our friendships? T.L. / Seekonk

Work friendships always have to change or die when the people involved don’t work together anymore, even if the circumstances are the happiest. If you and your co-workers had gotten bought out and gone into the sunset as millionaires, a year later some friendships would be intact and others not. So don’t assume someone is to blame when some of your office friendships don’t survive -- the relationships might simply be dying a natural death.

Competition doesn’t have to be a death knell to friendship. I used to work in theater, and actors go up against one another for the same roles all the time. At least in the corporate world, there’s the consolation prize that employed friends are more likely to hear of potential openings or freelance opportunities, and they can pass the word on to you. It’s not like that in theater. (“Hey, I got Mister Mistoffelees. I’ll put in a word for you as Skimbleshanks.” No.) Still, theater friendships survive and thrive, despite the odd painful or awkward moment.

There aren’t any rules of conduct for your situation that will keep you safe from those moments entirely. You and your colleagues have the best chance of keeping friendships intact if you can talk openly about what you need from one another -- maybe Jill would rather not know who is applying for the same jobs she is, and Sandeep would prefer to be told, and Chris doesn’t want to talk about work at all. Agree to forgive each other the occasional faux pas, and be willing to give each other space if space is needed.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Her new book is Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners. Got a question or comment? Write to

BLOG: Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at

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