Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Please excuse me, I'm Canadian, thank you very much

Is there such a thing as being too polite?

Canadians are known as a "polite people". Ask someone in any other country what comes to mind when you say "Canadian" and politeness will inevitably come up, along with reserved, conservative and hockey-mad. My personal list also includes tolerant, easy-going, peace-loving and multicultural...but I digress.

According to some thinkers, our global do-gooder reputation is starting to hurt us. Best-selling author Patrick Lencioni, author of books with great titles like Death by Meeting and The Five Disfunctions of a Team, suggests that our preocupation with politeness will affect our ability to come out of the economic downturn.

Speaking recently in Toronto, he suggested that Canadian business leaders are conflict-avoidant and as a result will try to avoid some of the tough decisions that need to be made to steer their organizations out of the recession, choosing instead to focus on external factors over which they have no control. This just leads to increased organizational angst because as everyone knows, when conflict is not dealt with at the top, it doesn't go away, it just migrates down the line where it plays out in other (mostly unpleasant) ways.

He argues that, if Canadian executives were not so afraid of conflict, they could use this time as an opportunity to be honest about their organizational strength and carefully refine the team, ideas and strategies. Alas, this means shaking things up, being willing to step on toes and embrace conflict and that's just not us, is it?

I'm not sure I agree completely. On the one hand, I feel that it is our conservative Canadian value system that has kept our financial institutions in check and healthy at a time when banks are collapsing all over the world. Yeah for that! But, I feel that our fear of conflict (especially among our elected officials) is also what enabled a large group of protesters waving a terrorist flag to close down important city streets in Toronto for days in a row, bringing traffic to a standstill and inconveniencing thousands.

There's a difference between being polite and being a doormat. It's possible to make the tough, sometimes unpopular, decisions without resorting to chainsaw tactics. I wager that you can be polite, classy AND tough as nails. It's all in the delivery.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Excuse me, you have lipstick on your teeth

A colleague just told me I have lipstick on my teeth and I'm thankful. Imagine my embarrassment if no one had told me and I had walked around all day wondering why people were staring at my mouth. After I wiped it off, we had a chat about the etiquette of letting people know that something is askew with their appearance and whether it's appropriate to mention it to casual acquaintances or even strangers.

I think most of us would prefer to know about a small flaw that's detracting from an otherwise great appearance, if all that's required is a quick fix (e.g. mayonnaise on your cheek, a pant leg tucked into a sock, etc.). As long as you're polite and more importantly, discreet, it's acceptable to raise these things with friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances. I also think we have a responsibility to save strangers from humiliation when possible and generally when I've done this, people have been appreciative. In a coffee shop I once leapt up from my seat to tell a total stranger that she had inadvertantly tucked her skirt into her pantyhose and she almost hugged me. I also once politely informed a man in a drug store that he had some green marker on his nose and chuckling, he told me that it was a permanent mark from a mining accident years earlier. Woops.

More difficult to digest, are the pleasent (or not so pleasant) remarks about appearance gaffs that are more difficult to rectify such as the fact that our clothes have become too tight lately, we're overdue for a pedicure or, my personal favourite: "you look really tired today". These kind of comments are not only unwelcome, they are unnecessary. People are well aware of the fact that they have put on a little weight, didn't get a chance to visit the spa or didn't get enough sleep. They don't need to be reminded by a well-meaning stranger.

If you feel you absolutely have to help someone improve their appearance or demeanour but are too chicken to do it you can always visit A Palette staffer turned me on to this site which allows you to send anonymous e-mails to people with such one-liners as: a breath mint would be beneficial today, you seem to have overapplied your makeup, and please wear a more updated tie. I read all of the possible lines and concluded that, if I couldn't give someone this kind of advice in person, it wasn't appropriate to share it at all but I can see how it might be beneficial.

What are your thoughts on letting people know how they could "improve"?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Living out a "no cell phone" fantasy

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is my new hero. He lived out one of my etiquette fantasies when, in a recent briefing, he took a chirping cell phone from a reporter, walked to the exit and threw it into the hallway. It was the third time in a matter of minutes that the same cell phone had rung and Gibbs had already asked the journalist to switch it to vibrate.

In our own meetings and briefings, most of us are not usually high enough in the pecking order to take charge of annoying breaches of etiquette with as much gusto. As I've said before on this blog, there is absolutely no justification for a ringing cell phone during a meeting. It's disrespectful to anyone who is speaking, interupts presentations and signals that the owner of the offending instrument feels he or she is somehow immune from the accepted code of conduct for professional gatherings.

While I applaud Gibbs for taking a stand, it's sad that he got precious little support from the other journalists in attendance. If you watch the video, most of them are laughing and shouting and one of them, completely oblivous to what's going on, picks up his ringing cell phone seconds later and, horrors, answers it and starts talking. It takes a few minutes for him to get back on track.

If you are in a meeting, accept that, for the duration, the person holding the meeting, or whoever has the floor at any given time, deserves your full attention. The only way to ensure this is to turn your phone off completely, no vibrate and no silent alerts. If you're so important that the galaxy will fall apart if you're not reachable for an hour, then at least leave the room periodically to check your e-mails and voicemails.

It takes a great deal of confidence and poise to continue to get through a presentation to people who are obviously not listening. Give the speaker a break and pay attention.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Finally...some good customer service for a change

I often use this blog to tell customer service horror stories but today, I'm thrilled to share a good news story about some wonderful customer service I recieved.

But first, some background. This week, I attended a great event on how to make the most of Twitter, organized by Yummy Mummy Club and featuring Scott Stratten, who is amazing by the way. One of Scott's many great tips was to use and register on Twellow, the Twitter Yellow Pages. Twellow makes it easy to find people on Twitter by grouping users into many categories (e.g. entertainment, politics, media). Check it out.

Back at my office, I went to and found the site easy to navigate but I noticed there was no category for "etiquette". So, I hit the Contact Us link on Twellow and e-mailed a request to have "etiquette" added. I'm always skeptical of those links because, sadly, they often disappear into a black hole or it takes weeks for someone to respond.

Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from Chad at Twellow Support only ten minutes later. He informed me that he had added the category and provided the URL where I could link to it. Pleasantly surprised, I e-mailed back to thank him and asked for some advice on how to add myself to a category. Almost instantly, he returned my message, provided the instructions and told me had gone ahead and added etiquette to my search profile. Wow! I almost never receive customer service that is this quick, pleasant and informative.

Twellow is now number one in my customer service hall of fame!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cell phone manners gone wild

Yesterday morning I posted that this week is National Etiquette Week and suggested some ways that we can all be more polite and improve the lives of others in the process. By the end of the day, I had witnessed a manners faux pas of the first order - someone who had an entire cell phone conversation in the middle of someone else's presentation.

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a great event organized by the yummy mummy club. The focus of the event was how to use Twitter and it featured a great guest speaker, Scott Stratten from unmarketing. I don't think I have ever heard anyone articulate the power of Twitter in such an engaging and humorous way and if you haven't already heard Scott speak, make a point of it.

At the beginning of his talk, Scott suggested that people leave their cell phones on during his presentation, and, if they have an annoying ring tone, to let it ring through so we can all enjoy it. Most of us took this suggestion in the tongue in cheek nature in which it was intended and turned our ringers to silent. He also encouraged us to tweet about the event while it was happening. Although I don't normally advocate using handheld devices at all during a presentation, I have come to accept that social media events can be an exception.

About halfway through the presentation, we heard our first annoying ringtone but, rather than letting it ring or turning it off, the owner of the cell phone picked it up, said "hello" and proceeded to have a rather loud conversation at his table. While those close to him strained to hear Scott's words and everyone else in the packed room squirmed in their seats, this poor guy continued to chat as if he was the only person in the room. Finally, he looked around, realized that he had become the unwitting focus of attention and got off the call.

In his defense, he claimed to have misunderstood Scott's initial instructions and thought that he had advocated an "anything goes" approach to etiquette. Do you think that, after the glares he received from everyone else in the room, he finally understood?

Nope. About 20 minutes later, he got another call and proceeded to do exactly the same thing.

So there you have it. On the first day of National Etiquette Week, an etiquette first, not once but twice.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It's National Etiquette Week - Catch the Manners Virus

It's National Etiquette Week and etiquette afficionados everywhere urge you to "catch the manners virus", a rather unfortunate tagline considering we are in the midst of a swine flu epidemic but I guess no one could have anticipated that.

National Etiquette Week, established by children’s etiquette consultant Sandra Morisset in 1997, is an annual event beginning the second Monday in May. This event is a self-assessment on the current status of civility in the United States but obviously the spirit of the event and the lessons it offers are applicable globally.

The purpose of National Etiquette Week is not to get you to think about which fork to use, but rather to keep in mind the little niceties that make our society a civil one, in all of your interactions. Maybe you'll enjoy it so much, you'll continue beyond this week.

So, here are some very simple tips for making the most of National Etiquette Week:

- Give people the benefit of the doubt - if someone annoys or upsets you this week, try responding with kindness instead of retaliation and see what happens
- Thank everyone - if you're one of those who sails through doors that are held open without a word or forgets to do the little wave when another motorist lets you in front of them, make this the week you remember it
- Make others feel more comfortable - in every situation this week, ask yourself how you could make things better for those around you
- Do the obvious - hold the door open, hold the elevator, let someone with one item go ahead of you at the grocery store, etc.
- Use your words - everytime you're tempted to use profanity or resort to name-calling, choose something more constructive instead. I must admit that this is my personal weakness, name-calling is just so darn satisfying.
- Give people a break - if you're a telemarketer or purveyor of e-mail spam, why not take a week off and improve the lives of the usual recipients of your work

Any other suggestions.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It's the little things...

Have you ever noticed that when you finally have a blow-up with someone, it's usually triggered by what appears to be a small, insignificant event? Maybe your spouse didn't wash the pot the way you like or a colleague was chewing her gum too loudly? Of course, these seemingly small annoyances are usually just the final straw on top of an underlying resentment that's been festering for weeks or months and has finally come to a head. Next thing you know, you've gone from a mild-mannered, respectable citizen to a vein-popping, profanity-spewing, rage-filled haridan. Or maybe that's just me...

While today's society offers up no shortage of major etiquette breaches I've found that it's the small, daily violations that drive us crazy and bring out our inner rageaholic. They might be minor when compared to, say, taking investors' money and spending it on yachts, but they rankle just the same in their flagrant disregard of the golden rule.

Here then, are the little indecencies that set my blood boiling every day:

The four-way stop - It's a simple concept really. There is a bright red stop sign at each corner of the intersection. Each driver is required to stop and check that the way is clear before proceeding. The rule is, first in, first out and, in the event that two vehicles arrive at the same time, the one on the right goes first. Yet every day, I see motorists violate this and go when they want to, not when it's their turn. And they know they're doing it, they look right at you and dare you to challenge them as they fly by, leaving you in the middle of the intersection wondering what happened.

The deli counter - Deli counter lineups operate on one of two principles - you take a number and when your number is called, it's your turn or, if there's no number spitter, use the honour system to determine whose turn it is. That means when you arrive, you need to look around and see who was there first and, if the deli counter employee makes a mistake and calls on you before it's your turn, speak up and let the rightful person have their turn!

The stolen parking spot - You know how it is. It's the holidays and you've been circling the mall parking lot for 20 minutes, looking for a spot. In desperation, you end up stalking a shopper on the way back to her car in the hopes of claiming it for yourself. You stealthily follow her down the asphalt, assume the position, turn on your indicator and wait for her to finally back out of the spot. Just as she drives away, some cretin swoops in and steals the spot right out from under your nose. You can try politely explaining that you were waiting for the spot but good luck with that. You're liable to get told to go do something anatomically impossible.

The express checkout - This one is my favourite because people don't commit this particular etiquette sin by accident - it's a blatant disresepct for other people's time. If it says eight items or less, it means eight items or less. It doesn't mean nine, ten or 15. Bananas and apples can't be grouped together as "fruit" and passed off as one item. C'mon people you know who you are. You are not exempt from the rules.

I'm not sure why these little things seem to grate so much but I think as humans we all have a basic need to be acknowledged. When people steal our parking spots or sneak in front of us at the deli counter, it's as if they're saying: "I see you but I choose not to acknowledge you."

What are some little etiquette sins that drive you crazy?

Monday, May 4, 2009

E-mail Marketing - Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my obsessive, sometimes futile attempts to have my e-mail address removed from marketing lists. In some cases the e-mails are from organizations I have done business with, but often they're not.

Today, after several unsuccessful unsubscribe attempts, I decided to call the customer service line of one such offender and see if a personal touch might do the trick. This organization is a frequent shopper reward program. I am a client and overall I am very happy with their services. It's just the two to three unsolicited, promotional e-mails a week that I find annoying.

My first point of contact, a friendly customer service rep, said she had "no clue" why I was getting the e-mails because my account confirmed that I chose not to receive them. When I referred to the company's privacy policy, she immediately transferred me to a supervisor, another pleasant representative who was equally baffled and assured me she had never heard of this happening before.

She promised to forward my question to the I.T. department but declined my request to have someone follow up with a status report because they just don't do that. I asked if she could take responsibility for calling me back when the problem is fixed and, after about ten minutes of begging, finally said that she personally doesn't call customers back but would have someone else do it within five to ten business days.

This seemed like a long time to look into a problem but she assured me it was fair. I asked if I could have her extension in case by chance, the follow-up call never came and she said she didn't have one. When I queried how someone gets a hold of her in an emergency, she said they call reception and leave a message so I asked if I could have the reception phone number. Her answer: they are not allowed to give out that number.

How weak is an organization's confidence in its ability to handle customer complaints if they are afraid to give out the main phone number? I know my own business is nowhere near the size of this corporation but if a client called me with a problem, I would do everything in my power to fix it and provide a solution within hours and I would take pride in personally following up to make sure they were satisfied.

How hard is it to apologize, investigate and follow up? I'll let you know in five to ten business days.