Minding Your Manners

Business Casual
Susan Percy

No doubt your mother raised you, as mine did me, to be polite, courteous and considerate, and to observe a few basic, but non-negotiable, rules of etiquette. And no doubt you, as I, are glad that Mom doesn’t know about the unreturned phone calls, the unanswered emails and the invitations you don’t quite get around to accepting or declining. Mothers of Boomers were pretty big on minding your manners.

But in their slacker offspring’s defense, the instruction manual our moms used to raise us was published long ago, in a time well before telemarketing was in flower. It was a time when telephone calls were usually from people you might actually want to hear from. It was also the time when an invitation required and received a response, often a written one.

Surely nobody’s mom could have anticipated the onslaught of phone calls and emails and the ever-growing, never-shrinking pile of invitations to fundraisers, groundbreakings, investment seminars, store openings, dedication ceremonies and receptions in honor of people you’ve never heard of.

Very few of us have the time or the inclination to deal with all of these. It’s so easy to erase the voicemail or delete the email, to throw away the unwanted invitations. Yet the part of us that remembers Mom’s admonitions feels a little bit bad about this. Is there a way to handle the communications overload without getting buried alive? And is it possible to salvage some shred of civility?

As a matter of fact, it is. The trick is to distinguish between efficiency and rudeness, says Gail Geary, president of Geary Communications, who gives seminars on both communication and time management.

“If you get a new business solicitation over the phone from someone you don’t know for something you don’t want or need, there’s no requirement that you return that phone call,” Geary says. “If you know the person or if you’ve done business with the person who’s making the call, then it’s probably rude not to return the call.”

But it’s not always that easy. If the caller has interviewed for a job with you and is checking on the status of the job, then you should be ashamed of yourself if you don’t return the call, she says.

“When the interviewer doesn’t have the courtesy to respond,” she says, “that is rudeness, not efficiency.” She feels the same way about those who invite salespeople to make presentations, then never respond to their follow-up calls.

“This seems to be more prevalent in younger people,” she says. “They have the idea that not returning a call means no or not interested at this time. But that’s a rude way to say no.”

OK, so how does one satisfy the minimal demands of business etiquette and still find time to do some work?

For one thing, it’s perfectly acceptable to say no to the interview request or the request for a sales presentation in the first place, if there’s no real likelihood of making an offer or making a purchase.

And, although she’s no big fan of email — “it’s at the bottom of the communications chain” — it’s better than no response. But she adds, “If there’s sensitive information involved, it should be delivered over the phone or in person.”

And about those unsolicited invitations — especially those that are not really personal but obviously sent out to a cast of thousands — it’s not necessary to respond at all. A purely social invitation sent to you personally always requires a response. But of course your mother already told you that.

For those times you need to return a call to deliver a message or give an answer, Geary says some people find it works to do so when they know the callee won’t be answering the phone. You leave your message and get credit for returning the call, but don’t get entangled in a time-consuming conversation.

Now that actually sounds like a ploy my etiquette-advocate mother could have embraced. Apart from her fondness for good manners, she had a strong pragmatic streak. At something like age 79 she was awakened in the middle of the night by a telephone call from a mumbling stranger she could not understand. In exasperation, she said, “For heavens’ sake, is this an obscene phone call or not?” The caller hung up and never called back.

Categories: Business Casual