Miss Manners Minds Your Business

  • Judith Martin and Nicholas Ivor Martin
  • W.W. Norton and Company
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Deborah Gelin
  • October 23, 2013

Miss Manners and her son tackle business etiquette and boundaries in this new guide to navigating the workplace.

Business etiquette combines observing social niceties with work responsibilities. But, as with families, the idiosyncratic nature of people and business provides a wealth of opportunity and examples to show how people should not behave. However, in some cases, bad behavior is limited to specific individuals or situations. Advice is needed in such circumstances, for example, when the culture and expectations of the business clash with those of the employee. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “All happy businesses are alike; each unhappy business is unhappy in its own way.” 

It is with these individuals and situations that Judith Martin, aka “Miss Manners,” and her son, businessman Nicholas Ivor Martin, deftly deal by suggesting ways to cope without offending in their new book, Miss Manners Minds Your Business. Following the format of Miss Manners’ longstanding and popular syndicated newspaper column, the Martins use letters from readers seeking advice as a springboard for discussing issues of workplace behavior. The resulting compilation is a guide by the Martins that sets up a conceit of bad behavior and how to avoid some pitfalls.

Overall, the Martins usually are spot-on when in their traditional home of personal behavior. Cutting one’s cuticles in public, sharing lip balm and asking intrusive personal questions have no place in the workplace. And, no workplace will ever lack for examples of how people behave bizarrely. You could properly ask the question, “What were they thinking?”, and the simple response, “They weren’t,” pretty much sums it up. The Martins lead readers adroitly and with an appropriate dose of humor through the social minefield.

The Martins also do well when counseling those who want to socialize with others outside of work. In an ideal world, it would be great if every boss read this book and took to heart its message that employees deserve and need a separation between their personal and professional lives. Whether this is a fine or blurred line, the Martins need to recognize it may not exist and provide examples that employees may need, instead of preaching a party line about how things should be. But, would it really be such an imposition to show up at an occasional holiday or office party and make a brief appearance and then leave (citing other commitments — real or imagined)? Whether the cause of bad behavior is generational or just rudeness personified, the Martins do try to offer a subtle way to deflect the repeating of offenses. Perhaps, to be able to respond to non-acceptable behavior in a witty, yet non-confrontational style is aspirational; but, sometimes, the sledgehammer approach is necessary.

A memorable business school course I took addressed “Managing Up” (your boss), “Managing Across” (your peers) and “Managing Down” (those reporting to you). All are equally important relationships in developing a satisfying and enriching professional life. This book does a good job at examining workplace complaints at all levels and from all perspectives.

However, there are situations where the advice offered by the Martins may lead to professional disaster. For example, in another case under the rubric of “What were they thinking?”, one letter writer asks how to resolve the dilemma of a planned two-week family vacation in Nantucket that exactly coincides with the relaunch of the company’s website. The employee clearly realizes the critical importance of his or her presence but the authors’ advice to the employee is to announce that she or he “will not be there during the crunch” and then blithely go on vacation, hoping the launch will be delayed. I hope the Martins will also be around to give advice when the letter writer is standing on the proverbial unemployment line.

Unfortunately, the overlay of running a business and its commensurate economic necessities also seem to have wafted over the authors. Sometimes either economic necessity or short-term situations cause people to work longer hours. Unless your boss is the most boorish workaholic, no one enjoys slaving away at one’s desk long after generally accepted office hours. The best advice for an employee might be to avoid being in the situation in the first place. Asking appropriate and needed questions during the hiring process (but presumably after an offer has been made) can avoid many problems. Surely, someone would answer questions honestly about the typical day, week or work cycle.

Furthermore, the convenience of working remotely and the integration of modern technology are missing from any discussion. The workplace situation seems mired in the last century. As someone who has attended meetings with participants fixated on their cell phones, I would have loved to see a whole chapter devoted to the use of cell phones. The use, surreptitious or otherwise, for checking emails, surfing the web, etc., while in meetings rather than paying attention to the speaker deserves a set of rules. Or am I just a Luddite in the world of high-achieving multi-taskers?

As a coping and advice manual, this isn’t the definitive book. Barring that, the book’s breezy style makes it an easy read, and learning that others have even worse working conditions than you can certainly provide some genuine pleasure. (If not, maybe the next book you read should be one about finding another job.) A bit of introspection may be warranted to ensure that you are not the cause of letter writing by your co-workers. Otherwise, you may be forced into reading the book suggested above.

Deborah Gelin lives in Washington, D.C., and runs her own business.

comments powered by Disqus