“You talk about being courteous, but I’m afraid that if I’m ‘nice,’ people will walk all over me.” A woman voiced this concern to me during a workshop I was teaching. If that opinion represents a conventional view of courtesy, then women need a reality check about the significant differences between being courteous and being a doormat.
Admittedly, as women, we know that in many cases our early socialization norms admonished us to “get along”, “be sweet,” and “play nice.” The result has been that girls have grown into women who feel that to make it in a highly competitive business environment, they must rid themselves of all vestiges of that early training in order to hold their own in a sometimes brutal workplace. So, when we talk about courtesy, many women equate the term with subservience or passive behavior.
Myth #1: The best way to deal with rudeness is to fight it on its own field. Be equally rude to the offender to show him or her that you’re no pushover.
Our natural instinct is to defend ourselves by returning someone’s rudeness. Unfortunately, this action begins an unpleasant cycle of revenge and retaliation. When we return someone else’s rudeness with our own, a minor insult can escalate into a serious problem. On the other hand, remaining calm and civil (not cowering) in the face of another’s lack of control accomplishes two purposes for you. The other person will probably run out of “oxygen” when he or she has nothing to fuel the flame and will become calmer on his or her own. Further, if anyone else is present, you will be the one in control of the situation, and will end up looking like the winner.
Myth #2: If you are courteous, (translated “nice”) you’ll be perceived as weak.
Author Dana May Casperson asserts, “When you are polished and professional, others perceive you as knowledgeable and confident.” The ultimate goal of habitual courtesy is to help you establish and maintain strong, productive relationships. Managers feel comfortable empowering you to act for them and to represent the company because they know you will behave appropriately in any situation.
Courtesy, practiced effectively, doesn’t put women in a one-down position. True courtesy combines respect for the other person with respect for oneself. When women understand that courtesy, combined with confident, assertive body language and a clear sense of purpose, they position themselves as the adult in the room. Further, if you allow someone to go ahead of you in line or send an email thanking a colleague for help in a situation, you are the one who is in control. You are responding as you choose rather than simply reacting to someone else’s behavior. In a rude world, you will come across as the cream rising to the top, and you will also be effective in operating in cultures where a less aggressive posture is the norm and the preferred way to conduct business.
Myth #3: Being courteous means adhering to antiquated rules of etiquette.
The rules of etiquette have grown out of a need, based on common sense and a reason for behaving in a certain way. For that reason, a lack of courtesy in the workplace goes far beyond political correctness or etiquette issues. Incivility makes open communication and teamwork virtually impossible.
Granted, some etiquette rules have long since ceased to be functional and have become more form than substance. But the majority of rules have their basis in common sense and discernment. If you encounter a rule or behavior that seems elitist, out of date, or just plain silly, use your good judgment. True courtesy benefits everyone, including the person who practices courteous behavior.
The rules will continue to change as society and circumstances change, but the principles of fair play, ethical behavior, and concern for others will always be valued. Courtesy, in the end, comes from an attitude—a sensible, enriching way of treating others, rather than merely a set of ordinances—a healthy mixture of pragmatism and kindness.
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