Business Etiquette - Ladies First
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Most girls who are in business are there to earn a living.
It is true that an increasing number of wealthy girls who are under no necessity to work but who want a definite place in the economic life of the world are entering business every year, but the great army of workers is made up of those who enter business because they are driven into it (driven, many of them, while they are yet very young), because it is the only way in which they can have their own money, or because it is the only way in which they can raise their standard of living.
The majority of business girls come from the homes of parents in moderate circumstances. They have had advantages—a high-school or a college diploma, a certificate from a business school, travel, specialized training—and all these they have added to their business capital. In many instances the opportunities they have had have not been brilliant, but every opportunity, however small, carries with it the responsibility to make the best of it. Upon these girls, since they outnumber the others and because they have had advantages (a high-school education is an enormous advantage if you are looking at it from the point of view of a person who wanted one but was not able to get it), rests the responsibility of setting the pace for others. And the standard of behavior for the business girl, whether she be rich or poor or in between, is the same.
The wealthy girls who enter business deliberately are usually followed by the same sensible impulse that started them on their careers, and, as a rule, they conduct themselves with dignity and modesty. The wealthy girls who, through a turn of fortune have been forced into work and have gone unwillingly, are another matter. "The rudest girls we have," is the testimony of most people who have to deal with them. Conventional social charm and poise they may have but they are without that finer sense of courtesy which makes them accept whatever fate gives them and make the best of it. The fading splendor of the days of plenty envelops them like a cloud—remember that we are speaking of the unwilling ones—they lose themselves in self-pity, and the great fun that comes from good work they miss entirely.
Many of the poor girls in business have never known anything but poverty, and their lives have been cast among people who have never known anything else. They have had no home training in the art of behavior (for the people at home did not know how to give it to them) . No one has ever told them how to dress or act but there have never been lacking those to condemn them when they dressed foolishly or acted indiscreetly. "The silly little things," they say `(and oh, how superior they are when they say it) . Employers agree, for, after all, it is true, and the silly little things hold their jobs until they are married, until they are fired, or (and this happens frequently) until they wake up, and then they are promoted to something better. We cannot expect girls like these, who have grown up without contact with the gentler side of life, to begin with a high standard of behavior, but we can (and do) expect them, once they have been brought into touch with better things, to raise their standard. It is no disgrace for a girl to begin in ignorance and squalor; the disgrace lies in staying there.
First of all, the dress of the business girl. Most of the ill-breeding in the world is due to ignorance. Ignorance of the laws of beauty and taste causes one to make a display of finery, and over-dressing is a mark of vulgarity whether one can afford it or not.
The girl does not live—we believe this is right —who does not love pretty clothes. But the average girl does not have money to spend lavishly for them. Her salary, as a rule, is not princely, and there are often financial as well as moral obligations to the people at home. She cannot have Sunday clothes and everyday clothes. She must combine the two with the emphasis on the latter.
A few years ago it was almost impossible to accomplish this, but manufacturers have recognized her needs and are now making clothes especially for her—plain dresses in bright colors and dark dresses with a happy bit of trimming here and there, neat enough to pass the censorship of the strictest employer, pretty enough to please the most exacting young girl.
A woman is no longer thought eccentric if she wears low heels. The modern flapper is too sensible for such nonsense as French heels for standing all day behind the counter. Manufacturers have discovered this also, and are making shoes with low heels and broad toes quite as pleasing as the French monstrosities and infinitely more comfortable.
A business girl—or any girl, for that matter should take pains with her hands and her hair. Coiffures that might be appropriate in a ball room are out of place in an office, and heavily jeweled hands, whether the jewels are real or imitation, are grotesquely unsuited to office work. (So are dirty ones.)
Hair that is glossy and tidy, hands that are clean and capable, dress that is trim and inconspicuous—add to these intelligence, willingness, good health, and good manners and there is not much left to be desired.
Certain positions expose girls to the temptation of dress more than others. She, for instance, who all day handles lovely garments or she who all day poses before long mirrors in exquisite gowns that other women are to wear, can one expect these girls to go merrily home at night to a hall bedroom with a one-burner gas jet and a mournful array of old furniture? They have a problem that the girl in a glue factory or a fish cannery does not have to meet—at least not in so concrete a form. At the same time they have an opportunity that these other girls do not have, and it rests with them whether the opportunity or the temptation gets the upper hand.
Positions in which girls are thrown into close contact with men expose them to temptation of another sort. It is in its most acute form when it brings a poor girl into more or less intimate association with a rich man. Once, a very long time ago, a king married a beggar maid and they lived happily ever after. People have not stopped writing and talking about it yet, although it is many centuries since it happened. It is true that once in a very great while a girl marries her father's chauffeur or her brother's valet and finds later that she has acted wisely; but these are rare exceptions to the general rule, for the result usually is unhappiness. Such marriages are always the occasion for big headlines in the paper, usually a double set of them, for, in most instances, the divorce follows within a year or so.
It is a dangerous thing for a girl to receive attentions indiscriminately from men, especially those who drift across her horizon from the great world outside. It is dangerous (is it necessary to add that it is incorrect?) for a manicurist to accept presents from the millionaire whose hands she looks after. It is unwise for any girl to accept expensive gifts from a man who is not her fiance.
There are exceptions to this rule, as indeed to every other. At Christmas or at the time a ceremony or an anniversary employers sometimes give their secretaries or another trusted employee a beautiful gift, and it is within the bounds of propriety for the employee to accept it. Often when he has been away from the office for several weeks a man presents his secretary a gift to express his gratitude for the capable way in which she has managed affairs in his absence, and this gift the secretary is privileged to accept. Gifts are seldom presented except where the association has been a long and highly satisfactory one.
But the girl who goes to the theatre with a man about whom she knows nothing except that he has the price of the tickets is running a serious risk. She is violating one of the most rigid principles of etiquette and she is skating perilously' out beyond the line marked off by common sense. Nearly every man can, and does, if he is the right sort, present credentials before asking a girl if he may call or if he may escort her to a place of amusement. There are instances in romantic stories and in real life where a man and a maid have met without the help of a third party and have entered upon a charming friendship. They are rare, rarer in fact than in fiction. It is banal to say that a girl can usually tell. But she can, and if she has any doubt (and this is true of all her relations with men) she should have no doubt. She should stop where she is.
Where men and girls work together in the same building or in buildings near one another they often go to the same restaurant for lunch. It is natural that they should sometimes sit together at the same tables. It is correct for a man to sit at a table where there are already only girls (if the girls are willing) , but it is not correct for a girl to sit at a table where there are already only men (however willing the men may be). In these mixed groups each person pays for his or her own lunch. It is not even necessary for the man, or the men, as the case may be, to offer to do so, and it is a distinct breach of the rules of etiquette for a girl to allow a man to pay for her lunch under such circumstances.
The only time when it is correct for a man and a girl who are associated together in business to have lunch, with him the host and her the guest, is when the engagement is made ahead of time as for any other social affair. On such an occasion he should be as attentive as he would in any other circumstances, taking care of her wraps and placing her chair if the waiter is not at hand to do it, suggesting dishes he thinks perhaps she will like, and making himself as generally useful and agreeable as it is possible for him to be. A point about which considerable breath is wasted is whether a man should enter a restaurant with the girl following or whether he should allow her to lead the way. It makes no material difference one way or the other, but usually he permits her to go ahead and follows closely enough behind to open the doors for her and to receive whatever instructions the head waiter has to offer.
If a man should enter a restaurant and find a girl whom he knows already seated he may join her if he thinks he will be not unwelcome, but this does not make it incumbent upon him to pay for her lunch. He may offer to do it, but it is a matter that rests with the girl. If she does not care to develop his acquaintance she should not permit it, but if the two are good friends or if she feels that he is a man she would like to know, she may give him her check to settle along with his own. A girl is herself the best judge of what to do under such conditions, and if common sense does not show her the way out etiquette will not help.
Women in business sometimes bring up perplexing questions and create awkward situations. Suppose a man has asked a girl several times to a business-social lunch and she has accepted every time. It seems that she should, as a man would in the same position, make some return. If she works for a house where there is a dining room in which checks do not have to be settled at the end of every meal she may do so without the slightest difficulty, but if she is compelled to take him to a place where the check must be given to the waiter or paid at the desk before they leave, she must look out for a different way of managing things. Business lunch-eons are usually paid for by the firm in whose interests they are brought about, and if the girl works for an organization where there are several men employed she may ask one of them to take .her friend out to lunch. Then, even if she is not present, her social duty is done. The easiest way out of such a predicament, it is superfluous to say, is never to get into it.
A girl who enters business presumably accepts the same conditions that men have to meet. She has no right to expect special favors because she is a woman. She does get a certain amount of consideration, as indeed she should, but she is very foolish and childish if she feels resentful when a busy man fails to hold open a door for her to pass through, when he rushes into his office ahead of her, or when he cuts short an interview when she has said only half of what she had on her mind.
Much is said about the man who keeps his seat on a train while a woman stands. His defense rests upon two arguments, first, that his need is greater than hers (which is not true) and, second, that she does not appreciate it even when he does give it to her (which is not true either) . Unfortunately, there are as many rude women in the world-and this statement is not made carelessly—as there are rude men, and in almost half the cases where a man rises to give a woman his place the woman sits down without even a glance toward her benefactor, as if the act, which is no small sacrifice on the part of a tired man, were not worth noticing. Every act. of civility or thoughtfulness should be rewarded with at least a "Thank you" and a good hearty one at that.
Old people, cripples, and invalids rarely fail to secure seats, however crowded a car may be. A man seldom offers his place to another man unless it is evident that the other, because of age, infirmity, or extreme fatigue is greatly in need of it. Well-bred girls resign their seats to old men, but if they refuse to accept, the girls do not insist. At a reunion of Confederate veterans several years ago a girl rose from her place on a street car to allow a feeble old man to sit down. He gripped the strap fiercely.
"I ain't dead yet," he responded sturdily.
One of the chief petty complaints brought against women is that they do not keep their places in line. Some of them appear to have neither conscience nor compunction about dashing up to a ticket window ahead of twenty or thirty people who are waiting for their turn. Men would do the same thing (so men themselves say) but they know very well that the other men in the line would make them regret it in short order. Two or three minutes is all one can save by such methods and it is not worth it. Even if it were more it would still not be worth it.
When a woman breaks into a line it is quite permissible for the person behind her (whoever he or she may be) to say, "I beg your pardon, I was here first." This should be enough. Sometimes there is an almost desperate reason why one should get to a window. Many times every-body in the line has the same desperate reason for being in a hurry, but now and then in individual cases it is allowable for a woman (or a man) to ask for another person's place. But only if there is a most urgent reason for it. Much
of courtesy is made up of petty sacrifices, and most of the great sacrifices are only a larger form of courtesy. It all comes back to Sir Philip Sidney's principle of "Thy need is greater than mine," but it is only extraordinary circumstances which warrant one's saying, "My need is greater than thine."
Since the beginning of time, and before (if there was any before) women have done their share of the work of the world. Formerly their part of it centered in the home but now that machinery has taken it out of the home they have come out of the home too, to stand in the fields and factories of industry by the side of their fathers and husbands and brothers. Because they have recently been thrown into closer association in their hours of work than ever before there has sprung up a certain amount of strife between men and women, and a great deal is said about how superior men are to women and how superior women are to men. It is pure nonsense. If all the men in the world were put on one side of a scale and all the women on the other, the scale would probably stand perfectly still.
The woman in business should never forget that she is a woman but she must remember that above all things she is a citizen, and that she herself has value and her work has value only as they contribute to her community and her community as it contributes to her country. Courtesy is one of her strongest allies, this quality which, alone, can do nothing, but, united to the solid virtues that make character, can move mountains.
We have said a good deal as we came along about courtesy toward oneself and other people, but perhaps the most valuable of all courtesies in business is politeness toward one's job. It is desirable for every woman to be pretty, well-dressed, and well-groomed, but it is much more desirable for the woman in business to be able to do capable and efficient work. She may be ornamental but she must be useful, and while she is at, the office her chief concern should be with her job and not with herself. The end of business is accomplishment, and courtesy is valuable because it is a means of making accomplishment easy and pleasant. It is this that gives us the grace to accept whatever comes, if not gladly, at least bravely.
It is a poor workman who quarrels with his tools (or with his job) , so the proverb says, and there are two lines of Mr. Kipling's that might be added. He was speaking of a king, but in a democracy we are all kings :
The wisest thing, we suppose, that a king can do for his land
Is the work that lies under his nose, with the tools that lie under his hand.
And the lines are just as true when "girl" is substituted for "king" and the pronouns are changed accordingly.