“Everyone? I need you all to come to the lobby for a quick meeting.”
The boss’ plea was met with grumbles from most of the staff of 20 and 30-somethings, who were far too busy for a “huddle.”
“Ugh. Is he serious? Some of us have work to do,” we said. And that was before we knew what he had up his sleeve.
“We’re going to talk about etiquette,” said Michael Platt, the CEO of my former company.
If you thought we were annoyed before, imagine how we felt now, as we were being pulled away from projects — on a deadline, no less — to talk about saying please.
And then Michael started his spiel.
“With all the new clients we’ve booked, there are a lot of lunches and dinners planned, and we wanted to give everyone a primer on etiquette.”
Cue the collective eye roll.
He proceeded to review several points, starting with how to engage in a proper handshake. We were all forced to participate, being coached along with comments like “that’s good — make sure you hold eye contact.” We were also instructed on the proper way to excuse yourself from the table, which entailed placing the napkin on your chair, and the clothing choices that are appropriate for work dinners (this one went over like a lead balloon with a bunch of NYC hipsters who lived in skinny jeans and Converse sneakers).
Oh, the humanity.
But at some point during the presentation, a few of us realized that we could either pout, while silently protesting the indignity of being told to say “thank you,” or we could shut up and listen. And here’s the thing — as ridiculous as it seemed at the time, I actually learned quite a bit during that session. Not only did I apply what I learned at work functions, but when I met my future husband a short time later, I was glad to have those tools in my belt when we went to dinner with his parents.
And in fact, when I told my friend Courtney (who is in sales) about the manners session, not only did she not think it was ridiculous, but she said plenty of her coworkers could benefit from it. She’s endured client dinners with colleagues who act the same way they would if they were scarfing down burgers with their frat buddies.
“It’s embarrassing,” she told me. “But what can I do? These guys are right out of college — they have no idea how to act.”
And they have no idea that first impressions are difficult to change; that as much as a firm handshake and a smile can help form a positive perception, mumbling and offering a weak handshake can leave a negative mark in the relationship.
Michael really was on to something, I realized.
Years later, I still draw from what I learned at that session, and I cringe when I’m around those who weren’t fortunate enough to get a crash course from Mister Manners (the nickname he was given by the hipsters). It may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but when I see someone ignore the wait staff (a huge pet peeve of my brother, who will quip, “what are they, royalty?!”), place a butter-covered knife on the table, or start crunching ice cubes in mid-conversation, I think to myself, they could use a session with Mister Manners.