Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for a More Civil Society

They say if we don't learn from history we're doomed to repeat it and yet, despite multiple failures, each January many of us resolve to stop doing some things (e.g. smoking), do less of some things (eating) or do more of other things (exercise). Statistics show that most of us lose our momentum after about six weeks, as the heady exhilaration of January 1st gives way to the dreary reality of mid-February. And yet, hope springs eternal. Each New Year's Day brings the promise that this year we will be more diligent, less prone to temptation, tougher on ourselves. We will succeed.

This year, in keeping with my increased interest in all things etiquette, I decided to focus my resolutions on things that would help me be a more civil participant in the human race. I have chosen these resolutions for a couple of reasons. The first is purely self-serving in the sense that they don't involve dragging my exhausted self to the gym at 6 a.m. on a weekday morning, saying no to chocolate or limiting myself to one glass of wine. In fact, they can all be seamlessly integrated into the normal course of a day. The second and more important reason is that, despite my interest and passion for manners, I am a work in progress, constantly stifling my baser insticts as I strive to move through the world in a more civil way. I'll let you know how I'm doing six weeks from now.

1. Limit the use of profanity - From time to time, we find ourselves in a situation in which it seems no other word in the English language will suffice to express our level of shock, horror, rage, etc. as adequately as dropping an F-bomb. One simple four-letter word conveys so much and immediately signals the gravity of a crisis. But we can do better, non? Resorting to expletives is crass and unimaginative. Cultivate a richer vocabulary so you can rant in style.

2. Give people the benefit of the doubt - If there are people out there whose only interaction with me was on the worst day of my life, they must hold a very low opinion of me and likewise, I have come across many horrid creatures in my day and walked away feeling that I have the full measure of that person...and it's not pleasant. But everyone has bad days, when the world conspires against you and after hours of mounting frustration, you finally snap on whatever hapless soul happens to be in the line of fire. Try to reserve judgement of anyone until you know them better. On the flip side, if you've given someone many opportunities to display their good side and you still haven't seen it, stop wasting your time.

3. Personalize whenever possible - If you read this blog regularly ( thank you!) you'll know I am not a fan of the group e-mail, holiday card, announcement, etc. I have heard all the arguments for why this approach is efficient, necessary, acceptable, etc. but I believe that relationships are created and maintained with a personal touch. As much as possible, ask, thank and apologize to people personally.

4. Three little words - And while we're on the subject of asking, thanking and apologizing, never underestimate the power of these words: Please, Thank You and I'm Sorry. I promise you that it is not possible to say them enough or to overuse them. In fact, I wager that the majority of full-on fights in intimate, social and business settings could be alleviated or avoided all together with these words.

5. Complain in the right way - I am a consumate complainer. By that I mean that, when I encounter poor service, I express myself to as many people as will listen. Let it be noted that I also provide feedback on excellent service as well. But there is a way to complain and a chain of events that one must go through in order to do it properly. Start with the person who is the source of your ire and give them a chance to explain and/or apologize. If the individual in question does not care, you are free to speak with their manager and to keep going until you get the resolution you desire. If you keep it clean and professional, it's acceptable to complain on Twitter, but not until you have at least attempted to resolve the situation through mainstream channels.

6. Count to ten - One of the reasons I became interested in etiquette is that I am blessed with a very short temper (a family trait passed on by my father). In my early 20s, it controlled me and, realizing that I couldn't go through life being a servant to this very unpredictable master, I started to find ways to keep it under wraps. Like many traits we're born with, it never really goes away, but I've learned various techniques to tame it. One is the old cliche of counting to ten. It really works: sends the rage back down to the pit of my stomach where it belongs and stops harsh words from forming in my mouth.

7. Lose the desire to be right - I'm one of those people who hates to be wrong. Isn't everyone? And if there's one thing that really irks me, it's when people argue with me about factual things that are easy to prove. Someone told me a long time ago that if I could lose the desire to be right, I would be much happier and I've been struggling with it ever since. Of course, there are many occasions in life when there is a need to set the record straight or defend oneself from unfair accusations. But there are also many less drastic situations where simply saying "I must have been mistaken" evaporates the tension and improves a relationship.

8. It's not all about you - I have two business acquaintances (who shall remain nameless) who know absolutely nothing about me. Why? Because they've never asked. It's not that they haven't had the chance. We've spent lots of time together, much of it in social settings, but they have never felt the need to ask me anything about my life. Of course I know a lot about them - their wedding plans, difficulty finding a housecleaner, life goals, etc. but I have not been given a chance to reciprocate. As humans, we love to talk about ourselves. It's only natural! But, remember to ask after each other. Even if you are profoundly uninterested in another's life, etiquette dictates that you at least inquire about the basic things - family, summer holidays, new job, etc.

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