DALE DAUTEN | THE CORPORATE CURMUDGEON

Don't clothe yourself in pettiness, it never looks good

JEEVES: The tie, if I might suggest it, sir, a shade more tightly knotted. One aims at the perfect butterfly effect. If you will permit me -

BERTIE WOOSTER: What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this?

JEEVES: There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.

P.G. Wodehouse

Nothing makes me want to be impolite like seeing a book of etiquette. I've just been perusing one called "Don't Take the Last Donut: New Rules for Business Etiquette." I picked it up thinking, that with that title, it had to be a spoof. But no, it's straight-up advice poured out by a woman named Judith Bowman, who I don't know anything about but I can tell you this much: She is NOT wearing white nylons. She writes: "White is reserved for nurses. White hose and white shoes are taboo in business."

As for men, we are instructed to wear shoes she calls "presidential style," and I don't think she means ones with a red, white, and blue flag pattern. She recounts the example of Sandy Weil of Citigroup who, for some unknown reason, was commenting on shoe choices and said, "Men should wear the black presidential tie shoes, until they earn the right to wear these." At which point he showed off his brown loafers with (gasp!) tassels. That scamp! If only he'd pulled his pant leg up farther while announcing that he was wearing white pantyhose, then Bowman really have had a dilemma to unravel.

Picture the two most famous businessmen in America: the frumpy geek, Bill Gates, and the perfectly tailored Donald Trump. One is famous for building a company and for his philanthropy, while the other is famous for building . . . well, his image. If you were to have a meeting with each, and each one offered you the same business deal, and you could accept only one agreement, which would it be? Do ties matter at a time like this?

But it isn't the nonsense about attire that really irks me with business etiquette books, but the nagging pettiness dragged into business relations. For instance, in her "meeting tips," Bowman offers this advice: "When possible, take the power seat. This will give you an edge, whether the host or the visitor." You see the hideousness of the underlying assumption, that you're out to "get an edge," as if a meeting were a bull riding competition. The best business people are fixated on creative usefulness, not manipulation via chairs.

The notion of a "power seat" brought back an old memory from early in my corporate career. We were assembling in a large conference room, and a vice president took the power seat at the head of the conference table. A minute later the president unexpectedly strode in. The VP, a simpering toady type, leapt up, embarrassed, and held out the chair. The president, a temperamental Texan, stared at him with disdain, reached up and grabbed the VP by the shirtfront and virtually tossed him back down into the chair, saying, "It doesn't matter where I sit." We all knew he was right: Wherever he sat was the power seat.

Bowman also advises us to "bring the smallest possible briefcase" and urges quality pens and portfolios, adding, "School composition notebooks and fluorescent pens do not enhance your image at a meeting." Hey, if I'm at that meeting and you have a great idea, you can write it in crayon on a grocery bag, and I'll be grateful that you were in attendance. And isn't that what matters - was the meeting better because you were there?

How often does the person sitting back judging the shoes and briefcases of the attendees make the meeting better? Nobody wants to work with someone who is rude or difficult, but here's the paradox: Obnoxious people, the ones who don't care about what anyone else thinks, don't read etiquette books. Rather, if such books are read at all, it is by goodhearted souls who wish to make a good impression. Instead of teaching them rules that will make them judgmental and narrow-minded, here is my three-word course on business relations: Assume they know.

Assume that the people you meet with will know what you're thinking, that they'll know your motivations. If you're in a meeting to judge the others there, to gain an edge and exploit them - they'll figure it out. Don't even bother going. On the other hand, if you're there to offer help and insight, to be an ally, they'll know that, too. If you assume that people will see through you, the clothes become all but irrelevant.

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.