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Business Etiquette - Personality

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



All that makes a man who he is and not someone else is called personality. It is the sum total of his qualities, a thing inborn, but including besides such externals as dress, manner, and appearance. It is either a tremendous asset or a terrific liability, and so important that certain schools which purport to teach success in business declare that it is everything. Which is just as foolish as saying that it is nothing.

One of these success-before-you-wake-to-morrow-morning schools of business instruction dismisses the fact which has remained true through three thousand years of change, namely, that there is no short cut to success, as a myth, and even goes so far as to say that it is almost impossible to achieve success today by working for it. E. H. Harriman they give as an example of a man who did no work but won success by smoking cigars while other men built railroads for him, quoting a joking remark of his to prove a serious point, when, as a matter of fact, Mr. Harriman was one of the large number of American business men who have literally worked themselves to death. Foch said that he won the war by smoking his pipe, but does any one believe that the great commander won the war by not working? What he meant was that he won the war by thinking, and the worn face, which seemed almost twice as old when the conflict was over, showed how hard that work was.

It is so impossible for a false doctrine to stand on its own feet that the spread-eagle advertisement of this school contradicts itself long before it gets to the "Sign here and mail today" coupon. "The first time you try to swim," shouts the advertisement, "for instance, you sink; and the first time you try to ride a bicycle you fall off. But the ability to do these things was born in you. And shortly you can both swim and ride. Then you wonder why you could not always do these things. They seem so absurdly simple." It may be that there are people who have learned to swim and to ride a bicycle by sitting in a chair and cultivating certain inherent qualities but we have never heard of them. Everybody that we ever knew worked and worked hard swimming and riding before they learned. The only way to learn to do a job is to do it, and the only way to succeed is to work. Any school or any person who says that "the most important thing for you to do is not to work, but first to find the short road to success. After that you may safely work all you like—but as a matter of fact, you won't have to work very hard," is a liar and a menace to the country and to business.

But the value of personality is not to be under-estimated. "Nature," says Thackeray somewhere in "The Virginians," "has written a letter of credit upon some men's faces, which is honored almost wherever presented. Harry Warrington's [Harry Warrington was the hero who brought about this observation] countenance was so stamped in his youth. His eyes were so bright, his cheeks so red and healthy, his look so frank and open, that almost all who beheld him, nay, even those who cheated him, trusted him." It was the "letter of credit" stamped upon the face of Roosevelt, pledge of the character which lay behind it, which made him the idol of the American people.

Personality is hard to analyze and harder still to acquire. The usual advice given to one who is trying to cultivate a pleasing manner and address is "Be natural," but this cannot be taken too literally. Most of us find it perfectly natural to be cross and disagreeable under trying circumstances. It would be natural for a man to cry out profane words when a woman grinds down on his corn but it would not be polite. It was natural for Uriah Heep to wriggle like an eel, but that did not make it any the less detestable. It was natural, considering the past history of Germany and the system under which he was educated, for the Kaiser to want to be lord of the world, but that did not make it any the less horrible.

Another bromidic piece of advice is "Be perfectly frank and sincere." But this, too, has its limits. Some people pride themselves on saying exactly what they think. Usually they are brutal, insensitive, wholly incapable of sympathetic understanding of any one else, and cursed, be-sides, with a colossal vanity. A man may determine to tell nothing but the truth, but this does not make it necessary for him to tell the whole truth, especially when it will hurt the feelings or the reputation of some one else. No man has a right to impose his opinions and prejudices, his sufferings and agonies, on other people. It is the part of a coward to whine.

And yet a man must be himself, must be natural and sincere. Roosevelt could no more have adopted the academic manner of Wilson than Wilson could have adopted the boyish manner of Roosevelt. Lincoln could no more have adopted the courtly grace of Washington than Washington could have adopted the rugged simplicity of Lincoln. Nor would such transformations be desirable even if they were possible. The world would be a very dreary place if we were all cut by the same pattern.

A number of years ago in an upstate town in New York there was a shoe store which had been built up by the engaging personality of the man who owned it. He had worked his way up from a tiny shoe shop in New Jersey where, as a boy, he made shoes by hand before there were factories for the purpose, and he had always kept in close touch with the business even after he owned a large establishment and had a number of men working under him. He stayed in the shop, greeted his customers as they came in, and many times waited on them himself.

When he retired from active business he sold out to a man exactly his opposite in temperament, as good a man, so far as character went, as himself, but very quiet and taciturn. A woman who had always patronized the shop and was a friend of them both came to him soon after the transfer was made and said, "Now, Mr. Tillis, the reason this place has prospered so is on account of the personality of Mr. Kilbourne,

His shoes are good but people can get good shoes at other places. They come here because of Mr. Kilbourne. They like him, and if you are not careful they will stop coming now that he is gone. You've got to smile and show them you are glad to see them."

Mr. Tillis felt that the woman was telling the truth. He decided that he would stay in the shop and greet each customer with a gladsome smile and make himself generally pleasant and agreeable. The next day he was fitting a shoe on a woman who was also an old customer and a friend of both men. He was smiling in his best manner and congratulating himself that he was doing very well when the woman abruptly took her foot off the stand. "What are you laughing at?" she demanded.

Some years later he told Mr. Kilbourne about it. "I decided then that there was no use in me trying to be you. You had been yourself, and I made up my mind that I'd be myself."

And that is, after all, the only rule that can be given. Be yourself, but be very sure that it is your best self.

It is personality which permits one man to do a thing that another would be shot for. What is charming in this man is disgusting in that. What is a smile with one becomes a smirk with another. What makes one succeed will cause another to fail. It is personality that opens the doors of opportunity. It cannot, alone, keep them open, but it is worth a good deal to get inside.

We were interested to observe the methods used by three young men who were looking for jobs, not one of whom would probably have succeeded if he had used the tactics of either of the others.

The first wanted to talk with the biggest executive in a large organization. He had fought his way through the ranks until he had got as far as the man's secretary. "Mr. So-and-So does not see people who want jobs," said that young lady.

"I don't want a job," he prevaricated mildly, "I want to talk to him."

The girl let him in.

"Mr. So-and-So," he said, "I don't want a job. I want advice."

His manner was so ingenuous and charming, his earnestness so glowing, that the man at the desk listened while he talked, and then talked a while himself, and ended by giving the young man the position (as well as the advice) that he wanted. But if he had been less attractive personally and the older man had been shrewd enough to see through the ruse (or perhaps he did see through it but made the proper discount for it) or had been opposed to trick methods, the scheme might not have worked so well.

The most universal weakness of intellect lies in the part of the brain which listens to flattery. Very few people like compliments laid on with a trowel, but no man can resist the honest admiration of another if it seems sincere. And since it is the sort of thing that one likes almost above all else he often takes the false coin for the true.

The second young man met the rebuff so familiar to young men looking for their first job, "We want men with experience."

"That's what everybody says," the boy answered, "but what I want to know is how we are going to get that experience if you don't give us a chance."

The older man sympathized, but had no place for the other and told him so.

"What would you do if you were I?" the young man asked as he turned to leave. The other grinned. "Why, I'd work for a firm for a week for nothing," he said, "and show them that they could not get along without me."

The boy stopped. "All right," he said, "let me work for you a week."

The older man had not expected this but he gave the youngster a chance and he made good.

The third young man had reached the point of desperation. He had been out of a job several weeks. He had been trying to get one all that time and had not succeeded. He walked into the employment bureau of a certain concern and said, "I want a job. I want a good job. Not some dinky little place filing letters or picking up chips. If you've got an executive position where there is plenty of work and plenty of responsibility, I want it." They asked him a few questions about what he had been doing and a few more about what he thought he could do, and ended by giving him a desk and an office.

It would be foolish to advise any one to follow any of these plans. Each man must work out his own method, all the better if it is an original one. Most business men like a simple approach without any flourishes. "It is astonishing," says one man whose income runs to six figures, "how many things one can get just by asking for them." The best reporter in America says that he has always found the direct method of approach better than any other. None is infallible but this has the highest percentage of success.

So far as personal appearance is concerned—and this is one of the most important elements in the fashioning of personality—the greatest variations are not due to intrinsic differences in character, nor to differences of feature or form, but to the use and disuse of the bathtub. More sharp than the distinction between labor and capital or between socialism and despotism is that between the people who bathe daily and those who go to the tub only on Saturday night or less often. The people with whom personal cleanliness is a habit find dirt, grime, and sweat revolting. To them "the great unwashed" are repulsive.

"When you teach a man to bathe," says John Leitch in his book on "Industrial Democracy," "you do more than merely teach him to cleanse his body. You introduce him to a new kind of life and create in him a desire for better living."

The month before he began his wonderful work at Tuskegee, Booker Washington spent visiting the Negro families in the part of Alabama where he was to teach. "One of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described," he writes in his autobiography, "was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar."

Farther on he writes, "It has been interesting to note the effect that the use of the tooth-brush has had in bringing about a higher degree of civilization among the students. With few exceptions, I have noticed that, if we can get a student to the point where, when the first or second tooth-brush disappears, he of his own motion buys another, I have not been disappointed in the future of that individual. Absolute cleanliness of the body has been insisted upon from the first."

Cleanliness is an attribute of civilization. We find it amusing to read that three or four hundred years ago bathing for pleasure was unknown, that when soap was first invented it was used only for washing clothes, and that even so late as the Seventeenth Century an author compiling a book of rules for the gentleman of that day advises him to wash his hands every day and his face almost as often! In the monasteries bathing was permitted only to invalids and the very old. Perfume was used copiously, and filth and squalor abounded. This even in royal circles. Among the common people conditions were unspeakable.

To-day a gentleman bathes and shaves every day. He keeps his hair brushed, his finger nails immaculate (or as clean as the kind of work which he does permits) , his linen is always clean and his shoes are polished. He is not over-fastidious about his clothes, but he has respect enough for himself as well as for the people among whom he lives to want to present as agree-able an appearance as possible. "Dress," wrote Lord Chesterfield to his son, "is a very foolish thing, and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well-dressed, according to his rank and way of life. . . The difference in this ease between a man of sense and a fop is that the fop values himself upon his dress ; and the man of sense laughs at it, and at the same time knows he must not neglect it."

It is a cheap device for a man to trick himself out with lodge pins and fraternity symbols, rings, and badges in the hope that they will open doors for him. Highly ornamental jewelry of any kind is inappropriate. Not many men can off set a heavy gold watch chain stretched full length across their bosoms, not many can live down a turquoise ring set with pearls, and very few can bear the handicap of a bright gold front tooth. Artists, alone, may gratify their taste for velvet jackets, Tam-o'-Shanters, and Windsor ties, but the privilege is denied business men. Eccentricity of dress usually indicates eccentricity of temper, and we do not want temperamental business men. It is hard enough to get along with authors and artists and musicians. The business man who is wise wears conventional clothes of substantial material in conservative colors. Good sense and good taste demand it.

The time has passed when uncouthness of dress and manner can be taken as a pledge of honesty and good faith. The President of the United States to-day is a well-dressed, well-groomed man, and no one thinks any the less of him for it. Men no longer regard creased trousers, nicely tied cravats, well-chosen collars, and harmonious color combinations as signs of sissiness, snobbishness, or weak-mindedness.

Formal dinners and other ceremonious functions require evening dress. It is the custom, as the Orientals say; and for the sake of other people present if not for his own, a man should undergo the discomfort, if he finds it a discomfort, and many men do, of conforming to it. Holiday attire gives a happy note of festivity which might otherwise be lacking. It is quite possible to point to a number of men who have succeeded in business who were wholly indifferent to matters of dress. But it does not prove anything. Men rise by their strength, not by their weakness. Some men wait until after they have become rich or famous to become negligent of their personal appearance. But it is well to remember that "if Socrates and Aristippus have done aught against custom or good manner, let not a man think he can do the same: for they obtained this license by their great and excellent good parts."

A well-dressed man is so comfortably dressed that he is not conscious of his clothes and so in-conspicuously dressed that no one else is conscious of them.

In a good many instances it is not' his own dress which bothers a business man so much as it is that of some one else—his stenographer, for instance. Men do not have quite so much opportunity to make themselves ridiculous as women. Their conventions of dress are stricter, and, as a rule, they can express their love of color and ornamentation only in their choice of ties and socks. Girls have practically no restrictions except what happens to be the style at the moment, and a young girl untrained in selecting and combining colors and lines, and making money for the first time in her life, is more likely than not to make herself look more like a Christmas tree than a lily of the field.

The big department stores which employ hundreds of girls to meet and serve their customers have settled the problem for themselves by requiring the girls to wear uniforms. The uniform is very simple; often a certain color during working hours is prescribed, but the girls are permitted to choose their own styles. Other places have women who look after the welfare of the girls and prevent them from laying themselves open to misunderstanding by the way they dress. Large organizations can afford to have a special person to take care of such matters, but in a small office the problem is different.

Of course, a man can always dismiss a girl who dresses foolishly or carelessly, but this is sneaking away from a problem instead of facing it. High-class offices have comparatively little trouble this way. In the first place, they do not attract the frivolous, light-headed, or "tough" girls; in the second place, if such girls come, the atmosphere in which they work either makes them conform to the standards of the office or leave and go somewhere else. If a girl in his office dresses in a way that he considers inappropriate, a man may tactfully suggest that something simpler would be more dignified and more in keeping with business ideals and traditions. But, oh, he must be careful! On no subject is one so sensitive as on his personal appearance, and women, perhaps, more so than men.

There is a limit to how far an employer should go in dictating the manner of his employees' dress. When the head of a big Western department store declared that he would discharge all the girls who bobbed their hair, most of us felt that he had gone a bit too far, even while we saw the logic of his position. While it is the only sensible way in the world for a woman to wear her hair the majority of people have not yet come to think so. To the average person, especially to Mrs. Grundy, who is really the most valuable customer a department store has, the impression given by bobbed hair is one of frivolity or eccentricity. The impression given the customer as she enters a store is a most important item; the head of the store knew it, and there-fore he placed the ban on bobbed hair. Which-ever side we take in this particular case this is true : The business woman should give, like the business man, an impression of dependability, and she cannot do it if her appearance is abnormal, or if her mind is divided between how she is looking and what she is doing.

It is almost funny that we let the faults and mannerisms of other people affect us to such an extent. They are nothing to us, and yet a man can work himself into a perfect frenzy of temper merely by looking at or talking to another who has a fidgety way of moving about, a dainty, manner of using his hands, or a general demeanor that is delicate and ladylike. Men like what the magazines call "a red-blooded, two-fisted, he-man." But the world is big enough to accommodate us all whether the blood in our veins is red or blue, and it is perfectly silly for a man to throw himself into a rage over some harmless creature who happens to exasperate him simply because he is alive.

It is an altogether different matter when it is a question of one man taking liberties with another. Most people object to the physical nearness of others. It is the thing that makes the New York subways during the rush hours such a horror. It is not pleasant to have a person so near that his breath is against your face, and there are not many men who enjoy being slapped on the back, punched in the ribs, or held fast by a buttonhole or a coat lapel. A safe rule is never to touch another person. He may resent it.

The garrulous or impertinent talker is almost as objectionable as the hail-fellow-well-met, slapon-the-back fellow. Charles Dickens has a record of this kind of American in the book which he wrote after his visit in this country: "Every button in his clothes said, `Eh, what's that? Did you speak? Say that again, will you?' He was always wide awake, always restless; always thirsting for answers; perpetually seeking and never finding. . . .

"I wore a fur great-coat at that time, and be-fore we were well clear of the wharf, he questioned me concerning it, and its price, and where I bought it, and when, and what fur it was, and what it weighed, and what it cost. Then he took notice of my watch, and asked me what that cost, and whether it was a French watch, and where I got it, and how I got it, and whether I bought it or had it given me, and how it went and where the keyhole was, and when I wound it, every night or every morning, and whether I ever forgot to wind it at all, and if I did, what then? Where I had been to last, and where I was going next, and where I was going after that, and had I seen the President, and what did he say, and what did I say, and what did he say when I had said that? Eh? Lor' now! Do tell!"

This sort of curiosity is harmless enough, but exasperating, and so childish that one hates to rebuke the person who is asking the foolish questions. There is another kind which is perhaps worse—the man who asks intrusive questions about how much salary another is getting, how old he is;(men are as sensitive on this subject as women) and so on and on. It is perfectly legitimate to refuse to answer any question to which one does not wish to reply. Every man has a right to mental privacy even when he is denied, as he is in so many modern offices, any other kind of privacy.

A loud or boisterous person is objectionable. Many times this is through carelessness, but sometimes, as when a man recounts the story of his dinner with Mr. Brown, who is a national figure, in a voice so loud that all the people in the car or room or whatever place he happens to be in, can hear him, it is deliberate. The careless person is the one who discusses personalities aloud in elevators, on the train, and in all manner of public places. Exchanging gossip is a pretty low form of indoor sport and exchanging it aloud so that everybody can hear makes it worse than ever. Names should never be mentioned in a conversation in a place where strangers can over-hear, especially if the connection is an unpleasant one. Private opinions should never be aired in public places (except from a platform) .

The highly argumentative or aggressive person is another common type of nuisance. He usually raises his voice, thus drowning out the possibility of interruption, and talks with so much noise and so many vigorous gestures that he seems to try to make up for his lack of intellect by an excess of tumult. Arguments have never yet convinced anybody of the truth, and it is a very unpleasant method to try. Most argu ments are about religion or politics and even if they were settled nothing would be accomplished. In the Middle Ages men used to debate about the number of angels that could stand on the point of a pin. Hours and hours were wasted and learned scholars were brought into the discussion, which was carried forward as seriously as if it were a debate between the merits of the Republican and Democratic parties. Suppose they had settled it. Would it have mattered?

One of the most offensive public plagues is the man who leaves a trail of untidiness behind him. No book of etiquette, not even a book of business etiquette, could counsel eating on the streets in spite of the historic and inspiring example of Mr. Benjamin Franklin walking down the streets of Philadelphia with a loaf of bread under each arm while he munched from a third which he held in his hand. One can forgive a man, however, if he, feeling the need of nourishment, eats a bar of chocolate if he takes great care to put the wrap-pings somewhere out of the way. No man with any civic pride will scatter peanut hulls, cigarette boxes, chocolate wrappings, raisin boxes, and other debris along the streets, in the cars, on the stairs, and even on the floors of office buildings. Garbage cans and waste-baskets were made to take care of these things.

Tidiness is worth more to a business man than most of them realize. In the first place it gives a favorable impression to' a person coming in from the outside, and, in the second place, it helps those on the inside to keep things straight. Folders for correspondence, card indexes, memorandum files and other similar devices are essential to the orderly transaction of business.

Keeping ashes and scraps of paper off the floor may seem trifles, but such trifles go far toward making the atmosphere, which is another word for personality, of an office. Some men have secretaries who take care of their desks and papers and supervise the janitor who cleans the floors and windows, but those who do not, find that they can manage better when they have a place to put things and put them there.

Nothing has more to do with making a gentle-man than a courteous and considerate attitude toward women. In business a man should show practically the same deference toward a woman that he does in society. Any man can be polite to a woman he is anxious to please, the girl he loves, for instance, but it takes a gentleman to be polite to every woman, especially to those who work for him, those over whom he exercises authority.

It is unnecessary for a man to rise every time one of the girls in his office enters his private audience room, but he should always rise to receive a visitor, whether it is a man or woman, and should ask the visitor to be seated before he sits down himself. In witheringly hot weather a man may go without his coat even if his entire office force consists of girls, but he should never receive a guest in his shirt sleeves. He should listen deferentially to what the visitor has to say, but if she becomes too voluble or threatens to stay too long or if there is other business waiting for him, he may (if he can) cut short her conversation. When she is ready to go he should rise and conduct her to the door or to the elevator, as the case may be, and ring the bell for her. He cannot, of course, do this if his visitors are frequent, if their calls are about matters of trifling importance, or if he is working under high pressure.

We once had an English visitor here in America who thought our manners were outrageously bad, but there was one point on which we won a perfect score. "Any lady," he said, "may travel alone, from one end of the United States to the other, and be certain of the most courteous and considerate treatment everywhere. Nor did I ever once, on any occasion, anywhere, during my rambles in America, see a woman exposed to the slightest act of rudeness, incivility, or even in attention." Conditions have changed since then. Women had not left their homes to go into offices and factories, but unless we can hold to the standard described by the Englishman, the change has not been for the better, for any of the people concerned.

Since the Victorian era our ideas of what constitutes an act of rudeness have been modified. Then it would have been unthinkable that a woman should remain standing in a coach while men were seated. Now it is possible for a man to keep his place while a woman swings from a strap and defend himself on the grounds that he has worked harder during the day than she (how he knows is more than we can say), and that he has just as much right (which is certainly true) as any one else. Yet it is a gracious and a chivalrous act for a man to offer a woman his place on a car, and it is very gratifying to see that hundreds of them, even in the cities, where life goes at its swiftest pace and people live always in a hurry, surrender their seats in favor of the women who, like themselves, are going to work. Old people, afflicted people, men and women who are carrying children in their arms, and other people who obviously need to sit down are nearly always given precedence over the rest of us. This is, of course, as it should be.

But the heart of what constitutes courtesy has not changed and never will. It is exactly what it was on that day nearly four hundred years ago when Sir Philip Sidney, mortally wounded on the field of Zutphen, gave his last drop of water to the dying soldier who lay near him and said, "Thy need is greater than mine."



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