No, it was not the 1950s, but the 14th Century when William of Wykeham made this statement. And he was not referring to the niceties of table manners or how you introduce a bishop (he was one) to a baron, but about the way we behave towards each other.
People are defined, he suggested, by their relationships with their fellow human beings. True manners are seen in thoughtful and generous behaviour, in consideration and kindness.
The subject of manners is having a moment, with reports of a speech given at a girls’ school recently by the editor of Tatler, in which she told a group of young women that good manners are worth more than good exam grades.
The point being made was that success at work depends as much, if not more, on interpersonal behaviour and social skills.
This is a tricky one for girls, who for too long have been restrained by the pressure to be nice and polite and sweet to everyone – ‘Oh, give the extra work to that nice Ms Jones, she never says no.’
At the same time, women making their way to the top, unlike ambitious men, are seen to lack the ‘likeability factor’ which encourages people to root for them.
The fact is that the requirement for good manners, in this context, refers to everyone.
Behaving with personal grace and consideration for others is not a requirement for girls and not guys, nor does it mean being a doormat. You can communicate fearlessly without being churlish. You can be pleasant without being a pushover.
Come out from behind the screen
Don’t hide behind your desk or your screen. Don’t let email do your work for you, dirty or otherwise. Don’t look at your screen when someone is talking to you. Make eye contact. Make human contact.
Understand the importance of saving face
It’s tempting to give the killer reply to someone who has annoyed you, or to make everyone laugh with your witty comment at someone’s expense – just joking! just banter! Don’t indulge yourself at the expense of another person. And if you have something unpleasant to say, say it in private.
Don’t ignore people who you think don’t matter. Apart from being crass, this behaviour can rebound when they turn out to matter after all. Learn names. Use names. Yes, everyone’s.
Say thank you
Not just for the big things, but for the little courtesies. Acknowledge that someone opens a door, lets you go first, stands back for you in a narrow space, lets you into the queue when you’re clearly in a hurry, gives you a seat. (What, you yourself don’t do that for anyone? Shame on you!) No matter what your gender, it’s not sexist behaviour, it’s considerate behaviour.
Don’t let others suffer from your lack of organisation
You might think it’s endearing when you have to rummage for hours in your bag to find something that’s needed, only to realise it’s on your kitchen table. You might think that everyone understands that you’re always late. Ooh, ditsy little me. It’s just annoying.
Everyone can learn to be professional, polite and personable. Go for it, Ms Jones, and Mister Jones too.