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Comment: Manners matter

As I have written on several occasions, I travel quite a lot in my role.

Although I love to look out of aircraft windows, even at extreme heights, I tend to pre-book an aisle seat when travelling alone. The idea is not to guarantee being first off the plane, but to avoid being a pain to my fellow traveller beside me if I need to use the loo. Although I am more often than not in my seat before those booked to sit beside me, I still always make sure I do not fasten my seat belt or take out my laptop or iPad until they are settled in their seat.

But this is not simply because it’s the sensible, most practical thing to do. I believe all this is common courtesy – if I can avoid discomfort or inconvenience in others by a simple adjustment of my own behaviour, then everyone has a more pleasant experience. It’s not difficult.

However, I have noticed that when I come to work or return home by train, those regular commuters sitting in the aisle seat often plonk their bags or belongings on the adjacent window seat, almost defying anyone else to sit there.

Why? Surely not for the four or five seconds they save when getting off the train.

It happened today. When I got on the carriage the only ‘free’ seat was by a window and it had a briefcase on it.  My request to sit there was greeted with a near contemptuous look from the occupant of the aisle seat, challenged by the very idea of ‘allowing’ me to sit on the ‘precious seat’ he’d claimed for himself.

What has happened to the courtesy that used to be called ‘common’ for a reason?

Although different cultures may have their own distinctive rules of etiquette, often quite different from those you find familiar, I can’t think of any that are about presuming priority or superiority over people you’ve never met before.  Britain’s strong ‘queueing etiquette’, for example, vilifies anyone ‘queue jumping’ by pushing to the front of a queue out of turn, whoever they might be.

I’m not just talking about giving up your seat on a train for those who may need it more than you. No, I am talking about challenging the pervasive malaise I see in the profession where it’s ‘me, not we’ that matters, and ‘Devil take the hindmost!’.

I believe that courtesy is one of our most valuable business tools.  For example, a simple reply acknowledging correspondence, even with a ‘thank you, but I don’t have the answer yet’, is more likely to ensure a beneficial outcome than waiting until you have all the answers before being in touch for the first time.  Such silence can easily be regarded as discourteous, even interpreted as a disdainful lack of care. How much better to be regarded as ‘nice to do business with’.

As Theodore Roosevelt had it, ‘Politeness is a sign of dignity, not subservience’ and ‘Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage’. If we’ve known that ‘Manners maketh man’ for nearly 600 years, isn’t it about time everyone started behaving like it?

I believe that as a professional, my colleagues and clients have every right to expect me to behave like a professional ­– and that includes being courteous.

Thank you for reading.

By Græme Gordon, executive director, Praxity

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