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Why Manners Matter

I’ll often ask participants in seminars, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word ‘etiquette’?” Not surprisingly, the first word they respond with is “manners.” They might also suggest “proper” and “politeness.” But it’s “manners” that I can count on to be the first word associated with etiquette.

Just what is a manner and why do manners matter? Manners help us to interact with people in two ways: they tell us what to do in many situations, and they tell us what to expect others to do in return.

It’s easy to illustrate these two ways in which manners help us by considering what happens during an introduction. When a person approaches someone to introduce himself, he extends his hand in greeting as he says something like, “Hi, I’m Peter Smith from The XYZ Institute.” In turn, the person being greeted extends her hand to shake hands as she responds, “Hi, nice to meet you, Peter. I’m Sherry Jones from ABC Corporation.”

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The first step in two strangers meeting each other—the greeting—has gone smoothly because they each understood the manners that were expected in the situation, and they each did what was expected.

It’s when someone doesn’t do what’s expected that causes difficulty. Imagine, instead, that Sherry does not respond by extending her hand to shake Peter’s hand. All of the focus of the interaction of the greeting goes from meeting each other to wondering, “What’s wrong? Why isn’t Sherry shaking hands?” At that point, instead of the relationship beginning on a positive footing, it is waylaid by Sherry not doing what greeting manners call for: shaking hands when another person offers their hand to you.

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This manner for an introduction tells Peter and Sherry what to do and what to expect each other to do in return. As long as each does their anticipated part, the greeting works, and a relationship can begin to grow. But if Sherry doesn’t respond as expected, all the focus shifts to why she didn’t shake hands.

Try it some time with a colleague. Before you offer to shake hands, instruct your colleague not to offer his hand as you extend yours. We are so conditioned to return the offer to shake that when it doesn’t happen, an unpleasant tension immediately fills the air.

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Manners are a part of etiquette. They help us to navigate all kinds of situations—what fork to use, how to answer a telephone that’s ringing, whether to address a boss by her first name or title and last name. Better yet, when we know what to do because we know the manner, then we act confidently and can concentrate on growing the relationship.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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