My newfound interest in manners both amuses and perplexes me. It’s not as if I’m turning into some grand doyenne of society. I’m just wending croneward. But must be the times, Readers. Not the failing NY Times, but our times. My meanderings in etiquette led me to the unfamiliar terrain of the White House, via the new book Treating People Well: the Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and In Life. It’s by two former White House Social Secretaries, Lea Berman, who worked for the Dubya Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for the Obama administration.
Considering how long books take, I suppose the authors started their book well before the election of Donald, er, Dennison, to the presidency. Nevertheless, it comes at the perfect time. Their reason for writing elucidates my exact feelings better than I have been able to do.
Acting with civility helps each of us take back a little of the ground that’s been lost in today’s public discourse. Tiny steps—daily activities like saying hello to the bus driver or holding a door for someone—add up to a healthier daily life and a better perspective. These moments make us feel decent. In the same way that each unpleasant exchange we have in the course of a day dampens our mood, every affirming interaction builds up and reinforces a positive sense of self.
Exactly. I’m taking back a little ground. I’m trying to maintain a healthy daily life and perspective amid the deluge of soul-destroying news. I’m reinforcing a positive sense of self. I’m remembering that most people, as the husband says, try to be decent to one another. I’ve always believed the personal is political. Trying to be an example of decency is now political.
The social secretaries recommend twelve progressive steps to treating people well. That is, each next step depends on mastering the step before. If mastering seems too much to hope, as I would have to say some of them seem to me, then try at least putting the step into play. Not that these steps seem that hard, really. It’s just that when you add a lowered threshold for stress, or a tendency to anger, or perhaps a highly tuned sense of self-defense, well, that’s where the conflicts erupt. Am I right?
Yes, I am right. Not that I am copping to any of the above mentioned personality flaws—er, traits. I’m just saying, in a perfect world, these steps are not insurmountable. But when we’re talking about toddler temperaments, as we are sometimes, even in adults, we are not talking about a perfect world.
Of course, we’re never going to achieve a conflict-free world. The goal is to help us all “respect and honor another’s perspective without subscribing to it.”
Alright already, you’re thinking. What are the dang steps? Do I have to buy the book to learn them?
No, you do not. I have checked the book out of my library. I love my library. I love libraries. They are wonderful places.
But I digress.
But I digress.
The book is in twelve chapters, one for each of the 12 Steps to Etiquette. The authors claim they’re writing about character traits, as if character has anything to do with manners.
I’ll just let that hang there for a few minutes while you think about it.
“The character traits we write about have been venerated for thousands of years in many cultures.” They are “universal values,” B & B believe. I can’t speak for all cultures, but I’ll buy it.
- Begin with Confidence
- Humor and Charm, the Great Equalizers
- The Quiet Strength of Consistency
- Listen First, Talk Later
- Radiate Calm
- Handle Conflict Diplomatically
- Honesty is the Best Policy (Except When It Isn’t)
- The Gift of Loyalty
- Own Your Mistakes
- Keep Smiling, and Other Ways to Deal with Difficult People
- Virtual Manners
- Details Matter
Reading their thoughts on each step was entertaining, although since one of their rules for getting along with others is to refrain from gossip, that means there are anecdotes galore within the book, but very few names named—unless an anecdote illuminates a positive quality in its subject. For a curious gal like me, that was disappointing, even as the realization that this disappointed me served to point out to me my lack of character. Because, yes, of course, character and manners are related.
Other steps in which I became uncomfortably aware of my lack of character are number 6 (Handle Conflict Diplomatically) and number 3 (The Quiet Strength of Consistency). I’m not going to spend a lot of time rationalizing my failings in these areas—because I have a reasonable grip on step number 9 (Own Your Mistakes), but I will say that sometimes even Buddha, Jesus, Yahweh, or even a heavily sedated psychotic must lose it.
I reluctantly revisited an unpleasant encounter with a local tailor, which I wrote about back in 2010, when I began this blog. If I had been more advanced along these twelve steps, I suspect I might have handled that encounter more skillfully, more diplomatically. When I took the badly hemmed pants in, sans receipt, because I had thrown it away before checking the work on the pants, a heinous mistake, Readers, and the tailor accused me of lying, I might, just might, have been able to de-escalate the situation.
Things I could have done when accused of lying:
- Show him the bad hem and just stand there, patient and quiet.
- Acknowledge that I did not have a receipt and apologize for that.
- Remain calm and refuse to allow my sense of dignity and honesty to be offended by his accusation.
- Consider how to turn the situation into a win-win. I was making a fuss in front of his other customers, after all.
- Brush aside the accusation that I had hemmed the pants myself (!) and was now trying to get him to fix a bad job for free, say I was new to town and brought these pants to him based on recommendations, and that I knew his reputation for good work, and ask him if he could fix them.
- When he said he would never have done work like that, say that I had heard good things about his work, and that was why I hadn’t checked it before throwing out the receipt. That perhaps something had gone wrong, but that I knew he would stand by his reputation and fix this hem.
Would those things have worked? Who knows. He might have been just as much of a jackass and not backed down. What I do know is that I would have left there feeling justified in my outrage at his accusation and denial, rather than outraged by those things AND ashamed of losing my temper. There would have been a net diminishment in the negativity in my life, and also in the community. I would have behaved well, which is sometimes the only revenge, or consolation, in a difficult situation. This thought brings us back to the beginning, doesn’t it? As one of the women in my NIA class said, shortly after the election, as we shared our mutual shock, we have to look inside ourselves to find the answers to what is wrong in our society. She’s a psychologist, so she must be right. And they worked in the White House, so, you know, they must be reliable.