The Reference Desk — June 2013

“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the June 2013 issue and is reprinted here with permission.


Q: I’ve read your columns about the use of cell phones during meetings, but what about the use of cell phones or interrupting conversations in general? I coordinate the training for new associates at a law firm, and I’m appalled when I see someone taking a call or having a side conversation when I’m talking with them or catch them texting during a training session. It’s not that I take it personally as much as I’m afraid that one of them will do the same thing when they’re in a shareholder’s office or with a client. I’ve tried to explain that some of the more “seasoned” attorneys don’t appreciate it when younger associates try to multitask or when they don’t give their full attention to the supervisor. I’ve been blunt, but then I hear my mother’s voice about to come out of my mouth. Doesn’t anyone appreciate good manners anymore?

A: Are we related? I swear I heard my parents’ voices when you were describing this situation. I see two interrelated issues here: the first addresses an overall need for business social skills and the other has to do with cell-phone etiquette, impulse control, and multitasking.

Speaking of hearing our parents’ voices, I’m reminded of a specific conversation that my dad once had with me. My parents were raised during the Depression and were part of the World War II generation. The G.I. Bill and the post-WWII economic boom enabled their generation to leave farms and small towns, buy homes, acquire cars, and go to college. As a group, they rose above their “station,” and, as my dad admitted, occasionally they found themselves in uncharted waters and feeling uncomfortable. As he said, “There was no one to show us what to do.” Fortunately, that group had each other to lean on.

It’s not so very different today. Good manners may not go out of style, but etiquette classes did. To answer your question, yes, people appreciate good manners. In fact, the need for business social skills has created a niche industry. Within most major cities there are entities that specialize in providing instruction on topics such as how to conduct oneself at a business dinner, make small talk, work a room, and initiate a proper introduction. Furthermore, law schools and MBA programs have begun to incorporate similarly themed seminars within their curricula. My law school will soon be partnering with the Charlotte, North Carolina, office of Finesse Worldwide, Inc., an international business etiquette company, to host a dining and networking dinner.  I spoke with Aimee Symington, CEO of Finesse Worldwide, Inc., who has more than 20 years of experience in business etiquette instruction. She can attest to the importance of mastering these skills. 

Aimee says, “As we all know, the job market is tight, and even seasoned professionals are competing for jobs. For this reason, it is more important than ever before to polish your social skills so that you will have a better chance of getting a job, keeping your job, and moving up the corporate ladder. Your professional presence (charisma), and how you interact and build relationships with others, does make a difference in whether or not people will like you, trust you, and want to do business with you.

“In addition to learning about cell phone etiquette, many college students and professionals are realizing that they can improve their professional presence and influence if they have polite table manners, confident greetings, and excellent communication and networking skills. Sometimes these skills are not taught by our parents or do not come naturally to us, so attending a business etiquette workshop can give you the tips and tools you need to get ahead.

“With regard to the question about cell phone etiquette, we all need to be aware of the message we are sending to others when we immediately respond to a call or text while in the middle of a conversation or meal. Our actions say the person we’re with is not as important as the person who’s calling or texting. The key to professional success is to make those around you feel valued and respected, so limit the amount of multitasking when interacting with others and exercise polite business etiquette.”

Thank you so much, Aimee. What you’ve said seems like common sense, but it’s easy to become distracted in the moment. Part of our responsibility as teachers, trainers, and mentors is to model the behavior that we expect from others, and often we fall short by sending inconsistent messages. How many of us respond to an email the moment it crosses our desk, jump to answer our phone the second it rings, or call out a greeting to a colleague when we’re working with another individual at the reference desk? Can we expect students and young professionals to do as we say rather than as we do? On the other hand, we also need to be patient with ourselves and with others.

We’ve established that people (especially employers and clients) appreciate good manners and why such skills matter. So to respond to the original question, you mentioned that you coordinate the training for new associates. This puts you in a great position to make a difference by integrating social skills and time management into your training program. I’m sure you’ll be able to explain the benefits to both your shareholders and your new associates. I’d like to know whether any of our colleagues have started similar programs. Good luck.

~Susan Catterall~

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