Please welcome Christopher (Chris) Gant ’83 to our Fords on Friday Alumni Perspectives series. Chris is a member of Haverford’s Board of Managers, and Director of Corporate Relations at Harvard Business School Executive Education in Boston.
Increasingly, I notice that younger people struggle in certain situations to know the right thing to do, and the right way to behave. We call the code of behavior that governs social interactions (including business/social interactions) “manners”. I’m a middle-aged man, and certainly no conservator of rigid social mores or modes of conduct championed by stalwart standard-bearers such as Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Miss Manners; rather, I’m intrigued by the fundamental reason humans, wherever they live on the earth, and in whatever age they have lived, devise systems of etiquette, and I’m intrigued by how they learn them, use them, enforce them, and modify them to fit a given moment. Think about it: Haverford’s Honor Code is one form of manners; it’s a system of protocols we subscribe to that governs how we treat each other in the classroom and everywhere in this particular community.
Manners are the basic rules people use to gather together and interact with each other. They relieve stress by giving us a reference point for how to behave, and thereby lubricate and facilitate our relationships with each other, certainly people we know well and interact with frequently, but perhaps even more importantly, people we don’t know well, or don’t know yet. Manners are fundamentally the rules of a subtle game, the steps of an intricate dance, and they enable us to participate in society because they tell us what is expected of us, and what we can and should expect from others. They help us all to be comfortable with each other because they give us reference points for how to be considerate of each other and help everyone feel welcome, and at ease. Like the clothes we select every morning based on what we’ll be doing, where we’ll be going, and who we’ll be meeting, they are choices that advertise who we are, what we value, how we “show up” and how we want to be perceived. “Your Personal Brand” is a popular current concept, and behavior is at the core of establishing what your brand is. Do you think nobody’s noticing you, and what you choose to do or not do as you make your way through the day, and that nobody really cares about your choices?
Trust me on this: you’re mistaken. You are constantly being watched, and evaluated.
A number of recent experiences with people ranging in age from their mid-teens to mid-twenties have impressed on me the fact that this fundamental idea may not be well understood: “manners” and “etiquette” sound like prim, starchy, old-fashioned terms, but in fact are (I believe) are vital to helping us build, sustain, and profit from our relationships with other people, in all spheres of our lives. These include the kinds of cell phone conversations you choose to have in a public place (if you choose to have them at all); how you present yourself at a job interview over lunch; whether and how you thank someone for his or her help in introducing you to other people who can help you professionally.
I’m not – at least in this post – going to get into the weeds about which fork to use for what food, how to butter a piece of bread, or how to initiate a phone call to someone you don’t know yet because you want something from him or her. Those are all important topics, and there are many more, but for the moment, if you read this and begin to become more aware of the “glue” that binds us all together – on campus, in the office, in our cars on the road, at the table – and start thinking about decoding the rules, why they exist, when you choose to obey or ignore them, then hopefully I will have launched an interesting conversation.
Post a comment if it’s one you want to continue, or if there are specific situations you’ve found yourself in and have wondered if you “behaved” appropriately to the context. I’m sure that intentional community dialogue on this topic holds the promise of being intellectually stimulating, instructive, and maybe even entertaining!