Clothing styles come and go and musical trends change over time, but the one thing that has never gone out of fashion, according to those who teach them, is good manners.
“Good manners are alive and well,” Snezana Pejic, founder and program director of The Etiquette Academy of New England, said. “They are as important today as they have ever been.”
Changes in communication technology, shifts in gender roles in the business community and new views on what is considered “acceptable behavior” in polite society have meant manners and etiquette have had to also change with the times.
Keeping up with those changes — especially in the business world — was important enough for Guilford-based Puritan Medical Products Company, LLC, that they contracted with Pejic last February to run a professional communication training workshop for its customer service and sales teams.
“We absolutely feel good manners are important,” Virginia Templet, Puritan Medical marketing manager, said. “We feel as a 100-year-old company it is important for us to be seen to our customers and to the public that we do have respect for them and know how to use the proper etiquette in all of our dealings with them.”
In her workshop Pejic covered the ins and outs of timely responses to customer queries, how to properly compose a professional email and the basics of communicating via the telephone or in person.
“She really covered the basics,” Templet said. “A lot of it came down to how to be a good listener and maintain that good conversation with a customer that makes them always want to come back.”
The 21st century term for “manners” in the business world is “emotional intelligence,” Pejic said, adding that the old days of manners simply being a guideline for proper ladies and gentlemen have moved into the corporate world.
“Today, trainings on ‘emotional intelligence’ are just as important for team leaders as they are for every team member,” she said. “Etiquette is that code of polite behavior that offer structure or practical good manners that make us appear respectful and kind to one another.”
That respect is core to good manners, according to etiquette consultant Janet Parnes who runs her own consulting business.
“We should always be concerned about manners even though some people think it’s just ‘prissy’ behavior,” Parnes said. “But it really boils down to common sense and using the tools we have to make other people feel acknowledged and valued.”
Manners and etiquette have of course evolved over the years, Parnes said, as they must keep pace with the times.
“Fifty years ago there was no need for email etiquette or cellphone manners,” she said. “I do think we have become too casual at times with using good manners.”
Cellphones, for example, Parnes said, are rife with opportunities to display bad manners.
“We are speaking to someone face to face, and then that cellphone rings and there is this knee-jerk reaction to answer it and start talking to whomever called,” she said. “By doing that, you are ignoring the person you are with and it is as if you have rudely turned your back on them.”
Harold Daniel, associate professor of marketing in the Maine Business School at The University of maine, said good manners are the “rules of engagement” in today’s society.
“Manners are very important,” Daniel said. “We have found our students feel a strong need to have those rules taught to them and to understand them.”
Every spring Daniel’s department offers an “etiquette dinner” organized by students in the Maine chapter of the American Marketing Association.
“We create a situation where students can experience a white tablecloth formal dinner and the behaviors that go with that,” Daniel said. “I think the students really feel there is a need to know how to perform in formal settings that just might be part of future job interviews.”
For his part, Daniel said, “us ‘dinosaurs’ are trying to teach the students what’s expected of them and how they can stand out and differentiate themselves from job market competition [and] having good manners is one way to do that.”
At the dinners, which have been going on for about 20 years and served around 120 students this past spring, Daniel said they cover how to handle the various utensils and a formal setting, how to direct and participate in the flow of conversation and how to interact with the servers and fellow guests.
The event officially ends in an old school manner with written thank-you cards.
“One would think handwritten notes are no longer needed these days,” he said. “But I have been told time and time again, it is a great way to stand out.”
This past year St. Joseph’s College’s Career Development Office worked with Parnes to host a multi-course, formal meal for about 60 members of the senior class.
“Often an interview process will contain a social event like lunch, dinner or network gathering,” Peter Seavor, St. Joseph College associate director of career development, said. “If we can help our students gain some exposure to that and increase their comfort level and preparation, we can hopefully help to increase their chances of success in landing the opportunity they really want.”
Parnes agrees and said it’s the little touches that count.
“You can never go wrong writing a thank-you note,” she said. “It’s an investment of your time and energy that is just not present in an email. It’s much more personal.”
Technology has changed that up a bit, Parnes said.
“If you have just had coffee with a co-worker or client, an email acknowledging that meeting is fine,” she said. “But if it’s something someone else put time and effort into, you need to do the same following up with a handwritten note.”
“These are all new areas of etiquette,” Pejic said.
“We used to have letter etiquette,” she said. “Now we have email, social media, texting, digital device and cellphone etiquette [and] we have lost touch with things like proper glove-and-hat etiquette.”
It is still considered good manners to stand when someone enters a room — especially if it’s an older person. But these days, everyone should stand, not just men, Parnes said.
“Greeting etiquette consists of many good manners [like] eye contact, smile, handshake and speaking,” Pejic said. “Once learned, these skills can be used in private and social settings.”
Good manners, Pejic said, is more of a process than a destination and one that is important at every age.
“We should always be focusing and strengthening our manners,” she said.
“Absolutely manners are important,” Seavor said. “They show you care about and value those around you.”
And when in doubt about what is the proper etiquette in any given situation?
“Just think about what is going to make the other person feel valued and most comfortable,” Parnes said. “If you think and act that way, you will never be too far off track.”