Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Miss Manners

Seth Godin was kind enough to link to me as a source for providing him with some thoughts I had on apologies, which were originally published in my sixth article on Ethics in Gaming.

Oddly, while some people linked to his post and also to my site, a larger number simply linked to his site. Even odder, many of these simply referred to the post as "Seth's" or "Seth's thoughts on apologies".

I put it down to laziness.

After all, I didn't actually give Seth the original source; since Seth wasn't linking to the original source post, only the source person, it probably takes a few extra moments to figure out how to properly phrase the attribution. "I saw on Seth's blog a post about apologies that was originally provided to him by a blogger named Yehuda." That's certainly much longer than simply writing "Seth gives us a post about apologies."

Miss Manners

Anyway, my ideas about apologies are certainly my own, but I am indebted to Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, for the inspiration. While she never wrote any specific comparisons of types of apologies, to the best of my knowledge, the phrasing I used for my "best" apology strongly matches the type of apologizing she has suggested in her weekly columns.

If you want my idea of what is the number one textbook on best business practices, pick up any Miss Manners book.

What Manners Isn't

Many people have the same reaction to the word "manners" that they do to words like "board games" or "fairy tale", as if they somehow know what it is and have already dismissed it as old-fashioned.

As I noted for both fairy tales and games, if you have been exposed to a sham of what pretends to be good manners and dismissed it on this account, more's the pity, because real manners are not only delightful and traditional, but powerful, persuasive, and essential.

Manners is not about scolding other people for making mistakes with cutlery, showing off to put others down, or excluding others from being in the know.

What Manners Is

Manners is simply, and always, about making others feel comfortable, and, by so doing, making yourself accepted. It is neither insincere, nor old-fashioned.

You know it through your dealings with customer service, whether you are the dealer or the dealee. The person who yells the most, or is the rudest, is the one that loses.

You know it if you have to convince someone to judge you favorably. The most gracious one wins. Always.

Sure, in the short run, a yeller or a rude person might get served first. But in the long run, the yeller isn't going to be invited back. And rudeness just proves that the person being rude is less deserving of the service he is so rudely calling for.

Miss Manner's gives an example of a jilted lover. Do you want to be rude and vindictive, thereby proving that the jilter made the right choice? Or do you want to be gracious and polite, thereby causing him to realize what a mistake he or she made? And the best part of that is, is that by contrast you do much more to lower his or her opinion of the new choice than you could have by being rude.


Manners is also not about lacking assertiveness, just rudeness. When something is wrong, you must speak up, and strongly. Even insofar as bringing the law into play, if such is truly warranted.

The truly best advice I ever learned from Miss Manners is how to politely refuse requests. Most people try to dream up stories and so on in order to wrangle their way out of another solicitation for money or another "could you please handle the school play?"

The correct response to things that are truly not your responsibility is simply "No, I'm terribly sorry, but I can't." When pressed as to why, repeat as often as necessary. "I'm sorry, but I simply can't." No further explanations are offered, and therefore no handle is given to start an argument about the patheticness of your excuse, the pressingness of the need, or the eventual falsehood at which you may be caught.


As far as the cutlery is concerned, Miss Manners admits that there is no sensible reason as to what our conventions are (aside from those that prevent public displays of disgusting activity), but that any convention is better than no convention, or else no one knows what to do.

Whatever your society holds as conventions, these are to be gently taught to outsiders so that everyone can sit comfortably at the same table and concentrate more on the table talk than in where to find the utensil they desperately need for the next course, or how to excuse themselves without being vulgar (say "Excuse me" - nothing else is required, including an answer to the inevitable rude question that follows as to where you are going.)


Miss Manner's philosophy is quite extensive, in fact, and she addresses correct manners from the simplest of modern activities to the most complex workings of international relations. She proposes, and I fully agree, that a more thorough teaching of manners, and not simply law, to a generation would do far more to solve the world's real problems than any other political or diplomatic process.


Aside from the correctness of Miss Manners' philosophies, she is also an excellent writer and an amazing wit, responding to questions with humor and flourish. She is a great delight to read, again and again.

Reading her books, and absorbing the lessons therein, is probably the easiest and best way to truly become a more pleasant person, and an enjoyable one at that.

Some books of hers on Amazon:



Anonymous said...

I was in the process of linking back to Seth's post about your list, and I decided to see for myself. I am glad that I did. I can linkback to you, too, for the apology story that I will post later today.

I found it very interesting how you discuss manners as a framework for relationships, be they business, government, or personal. I saw this interesting post at Tom Peters blog this morning. Perhaps you should comment as well, and offer manners as the possible framework to use.
best regards, john

Sam said...

Dear Yehuda,

I saw the post of Seth and looked for it on the source when I passed along this post.

It is a nice way of setting things out, but it needs to be put in perspective. I have lived in Jakarta for half a year and learned a lot about the cultural differences between correct manners. I was raised in The Netherlands and have a Western point of view. In Jakarta - being a mostly Western city - the manners were somewhat different. For instance the Javanese language (Jakarta is on the island of Java) has 12 different words for saying Yes, most of them meaning Yes, but No actually. It is very rude to plainly say No there, even if you intend it very well. I think that if you are into the manners issue, you should read some things about the different point of views in Asia on the subject, I've found it very interesting to get familiar with these cultural rules.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

John: Thanks for the comment.

Sam: Absolutely. The proper way to phrase things in different cultures to avoid causing offense is what I called "etiquette".

And as I noted, a certain amount of allowance is made for foreigners, until they are presumed to have learned properly. And foreigners are only given a certain amount of time to learn properly before they are no longer allowed to use the excuse that they don't know the etiquette.


Anonymous said...


Wow. I remember reading the apologies post on Seth's blog, and to tell you the truth I thought *he* wrote it since it seemed like a Seth-like thing to write.

Now, it's like a year later (!) and I came across your blog which I ended up tracing to that apologies post.

My apologies to you for not giving you credit (in my mind). :-)