First published in the Sunday Times on 6th November 2016.
Social customs and practices oil the wheels of commerce. They are probably as important as money in making business transactions happen. But almost none of us is taught such etiquette in any formal sense: we have to pick it up as we go along, in the process acquiring our own habits and pet hates. Like retail, it is all in the detail — and personal priorities. Here are a few areas where I believe good manners can make a difference.
Swearing: I hadn’t heard adults use vulgar language until I worked in a factory during the holidays as a teenager, and listened to the women on the dispatch line using four-letter words with abandon. Since then expletives have become much more common in everyday conversation. I do swear from time to time in a business context, but it is best done sparingly and for emphasis rather than for the purposes of showing off or aggression. Clearly, context matters: don’t swear in media interviews or in very polite society.
Small talk: many of us struggle with this, at both social and work functions. It can be hard to find common ground and remain engaged with people you don’t know. One of my tactics is to ask rather more profound questions than where someone went on holiday or which TV shows they watch, even when talking with virtual strangers. Asking, “What are you most passionate about in life?”, for example, rather than complaining about the weather.
Greetings: I can’t abide a limp handshake, from a man or a woman. Research is said to have shown that those with a firm handshake are more extrovert, less neurotic and less shy than those with a weak handshake. The one thing worse is a bonecrusher: they are simply uncivil. Social kissing as a way of saying hello in a business situation can be a minefield. It is not done by men in this country, except in certain industries such as fashion. I do air-kiss women I know well, but let them take the lead.
Saying thank you: This is the heart of thoughtfulness. Expressing appreciation well is a great art, but also requires effort. Doug Conant, former boss of the food company Campbell’s, says he handwrote about 30,000 notes to staff during his 10-year tenure. In this age of emails and texts, to receive a personal thank you truly stands out. I can’t match his heroic endeavours, but I do try to respond to every message sent to me by readers, even if it’s just to show gratitude for a kind word.
Punctuality: This is partly a cultural matter. In countries such as Britain, Germany and America, we place great emphasis on arriving on time for meetings. By contrast, in the Middle East and southern Mediterranean there is a much more relaxed attitude to timekeeping. I often cram too much into my diary and so run late, which is poor form. Next year I promise to do better. In the meantime I will pretend I’m Italian.
Lunching, breakfasting and drinking: Lunch is for wimps, said Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. Being a restaurateur, I violently disagree, of course. While lunch takes time, it is also an opportunity to get to know someone better in a comfortable setting, without having to adhere to any specific agenda. I’m happy to pay for the meal unless I’m definitely being treated by my companion’s company — and, anyway, I prefer to order one of the cheaper items on the menu. Breakfast is a somewhat smaller commitment, and less relaxed, but safer than cocktails after work. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I try to stick to one drink: you don’t want to get drunk in front of your fellow workers.
Charm: Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help text How to Win Friends and Influence People, which I read and enjoyed in my twenties, gives hope to those of us without lashings of natural charisma. Its lessons can clearly work. The serial killer Charles Manson took classes based on the book in prison. According to one biographer, it helped turn him from a “low-level pimp” into a “frighteningly effective sociopath” who was able to persuade members of his cult to commit murder. He did this by soliciting and praising his followers’ advice and, as Carnegie suggested, “letting the other fellow feel that the idea is his”.
Digital devices: We often give attention to these at the expense of a person beside us. They may have made us better networked and more productive, but they have impaired our everyday civility. Phones, tablets and so forth should be put away and muted, or turned off altogether, whenever possible while we are with others.
Of course, the real secret to mastering business etiquette is to try your best to treat people with respect, and do as you would be done by.