Call us old-fashioned, but whatever happened to politeness and common courtesy in the workplace?
Manners isn’t a word used often these days – an occasional injunction to a naughty child, perhaps, but as a social skill it seems all but forgotten. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and more intolerant but, in business, common courtesy and politeness seem to be vanishing over the horizon faster than Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari.

Take this scenario. Client and engineer are having a face-to-face conversation about a tricky groundworks problem in the client’s office. The client’s phone rings. In mid-conversation – mid-sentence, in fact – he swivels his plush leather chair around, turning his back to answer the insistent ring, leaving the engineer to stand gormlessly in the middle of the room. A few things strike me about this scene:

  • No one seems to get offered a seat anymore. When knocking on an office door, the response is more likely to be a grunt and a terse ”Whaddaya want?” rather than “Come in, have a seat, what can I do for you?”

  • The client did not excuse himself to answer the phone, or suggest that the conversation could be concluded later. Indeed, he could have ignored the phone altogether, secure in the knowledge that a colleague or the voicemail system would intercept the call. Still, it’s difficult to ignore a ringing phone. I suspect telecom companies have selected ringing tones that subliminally whisper “Urrr-gent, urrr-gent, urrr-gent” even when we know that it’s more likely to be a double-glazing salesman than Tony and Cherie inviting us to dinner at No 10.

  • The client’s attitude that his engineer’s time is so valueless that several minutes shifting uncomfortably from foot-to-foot on his logo-emblazoned carpet is time well spent. Now I know it’s the client’s apparent prerogative to treat consultants like shop assistants, but I strongly suspect that the same client argues ferociously about the engineer’s fees and wants to know exactly what he’s been doing for all that time he’s been charging.

    Then there are other things, trivial, perhaps, but noticeably absent from modern life:

  • “Please” has been omitted from the vocabulary altogether or replaced by an interrogative “OK?” or “yes?” at the end of a request. “Look, the bloke’s getting a bit desperate – make sure that drawing goes out on Thursday, OK?”

    ‘Please’ has been omitted from the vocabulary altogether or replaced by an interrogative ‘OK?’

  • It’s amazing the difference an occasional “thank you” makes. No matter that it’s part of someone’s job description to, say, sort and fold 77 A1 drawings and put them into envelopes; a simple “thanks” at least acknowledges that it’s been done by a person, not a machine.

  • Is it physically impossible for some people to apologise? There are occasions when starting a sentence with “I’m really sorry about this, but …” can get you much further than even the most inventive excuse (even the most sympathetic of clients can get suspicious at the third grandma’s funeral).

  • Punctuality: if a meeting is set for 1Oam, it should start at 1Oam. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen the architect swan in at 20 past with a casual “We’d better start now”. Of course, everyone else was just idling away the time, waiting for the most important person to grace them with their presence. Sure, there can be unavoidable delays, but isn’t that one of the reasons mobile phones were invented?

  • Holding doors open; “after you”; a smile to acknowledge a service performed; offering to make the coffee (or pour the tea – manoeuvrings at meetings to avoid “being mother” can be so intense that nobody gets tea at all).

    These trivial examples of the lack of consideration for our colleagues are perhaps a symptom of a wider malaise. We seem so much wrapped up in ourselves that any thoughtfulness towards others is simply alien. Thoughtlessness is becoming the norm.