The Strategic Resolution

Happy 2008! The New Year is only a few days old. Have you made your New Year's resolution yet? Are you planning to lose weight? Quit smoking? Save more, spend less? What if I told you about a resolution that is faster than losing weight, easier than quitting smoking and better than balancing your budget? Would you be interested? This year, make your New Year's resolution to employ strategic etiquette.

What is strategic etiquette? Allow me to explain. For most of us, when someone is yelling, our natural reaction is to yell back. But that only escalates the situation causing the other person to scream even louder. The solution is counter-intuitive. When someone is yelling at you, instead of reacting, the strategic solution is to speak softly. Not only is this the strategic response, but it is also the more polite choice.

For over a decade now, I have been answering etiquette emergency e-mails; thousands of questions, most of which have been seeking advice on interpersonal interactions. Stressful situations with bosses, co-workers, relatives, spouses, roommates and friends flood my e-mail in-box. My advice gives perspective and allows readers to act strategically instead of reactionary. Those of you who have attended my programs have heard me talk about this principle of strategic etiquette. When we are strategic, we are always polite and we make decisions about how to behave instead of simply reacting to other people's bad behavior. Let us walk through a few typical etiquette emergencies and their strategic solutions.

The Spouse ~

"Every time I try to talk with my spouse about anything serious (from bills to inviting over other couples for dinner), he mumbles something about thinking about it and walks away. I never seem to get an answer. We talk about our day, we talk about current events, and we talk about the TV shows we watch together. But when I need his input or agreement to plan, he turns into a different person. I hate to hound him. Help!"

Consider how your spouse prefers to communicate. Clearly everyday chit-chat is fine, but with more important topics you will need to try different options. Some choices available to you are:

  • Schedule a time once a week to sit at the kitchen table to talk through any of the meatier issues. You may even want to keep a running list of weekly agenda items on the fridge so that he knows what you want to cover.
  • Perhaps talking about serious issues makes your spouse uncomfortable. Have you tried e-mailing him? With an e-mail he can calmly read what you wrote and think before replying to you.
  • Or, maybe he does not have the same level of concern as you about certain topics. Institute a "veto" system where you make decisions and then tell him (in person or by e-mail) giving him a deadline for a veto. If he vetoes the topic, then you have a sit-down discussion to find common ground, otherwise you can plan away.
The Relative ~

"When I ask my sister what her kids want for their birthdays, she'll send me a list. But when I purchase something on the list, she (not someone else!) has already bought and given the toy to the child. This has happened for three years running now and it is so annoying! What should I do?"

Obviously asking your sister for a specific list is not working. Consider your other choices:
  • Instead of asking your sister for a list, try asking about the kids' interests and activities. Then, choose gifts that relate in some way, shape or form.
  • Ask your nieces and nephews directly what they would like.
  • Check with people who have kids the same age to find out what the latest/hottest gift is at the moment.
  • But most of all, stop asking for a gift list!
The Co-worker ~

"I have a co-worker who vultures my desk every morning. Even before I have a sip of coffee and turn on my computer, chatty Cathy has planted herself in a chair and fills me in on the saga of her life. It is a depressing way to start my day and saps my energy trying to move her along. What can I do?"

What is it about this situation that bothers you the most? Is it that you have not had your coffee? Is it that you are not interested in the chit-chat? Is it that she is draining time from your work day when you are already busy? Depending on your thoughts, there are different ways to handle chatty Cathy.
  • Do you like chatty Cathy, but need your coffee? If so, tell her that you love to talk, but she needs to give you 20 minutes to drink your coffee before she comes in. If she comes by too early, politely tell her to come back at (fill in the specific time). Or, schedule lunch. When she stops by, tell her that you can not talk now, but will see her at noon.
  • Do you dislike the chatting? If so, when she comes in, choose topics you prefer and steer the conversation. "Cathy, that Britney sure has a lot of issues&so tell me what do you think about the upcoming changes in the tax law?" Either you will be able to talk about a topic of interest to you or she will find another, more receptive, gossip buddy.
  • Do you dislike the distraction? If so, remove the guest chair from your workspace or fill it with piles of files so that chatty Cathy can not make herself too comfortable. Then, after a moment of dialogue, ask her to help you. "Cathy, if you are free right now, I could so use help with (fill in undesirable activity such as shredding, pulling files from storage, counting inventory)." Either she will help you complete the task, which helps your work load, or she will start to avoid you since you seem to give her more work every time she stops by your desk.
The Friend ~

"My friend is late. Always late. I have waited anywhere from 15 minutes, at a minimum, to over 2 hours for him. He always makes his flights when he travels, so I know he can be on time when he wants to be on time. I have tried telling him we are meeting 30 minutes earlier, but he still shows up late. Thoughts?"

Do you want to maintain this friendship? Does this person have other qualities that more than make up for the waiting? You are not going to change him, but you can change the dynamics. Some options are:
  • Bring things to do. If he is late, pull out a book to read, make some telephone calls, or write a few letters. Consider it found time to catch up. If he is picking you up, even better, surely you have lots to do while waiting at home.
  • Have a back up plan; decide how long you are willing to wait. After that amount of time, call his cell phone and let him know how to reach you. Then go run some errands while waiting for his call. If you can still meet, great and if not, perhaps some other time.
  • Include others; meet a group of friends at the destination. For those who are there, buy your tickets and go into the movie, or be seated at the restaurant and order your appetizers. Do be sure to save the late arrival a seat for when he does show up, but don't hold up your plans.
The Boss ~

"I am relatively new at work and my position is in a supporting role. My desk is right outside my boss's office. She screams for me. It startles me and is making me jumpy and skittish. I have asked her to buzz me on the intercom and I told her I would come right in, but that does not seem to work. I spoke with human resources. It turns out that most people only last a few months in this position before they quit! I like the company and don't want to leave. What can I do?"

Since simply asking did not work, you are going to need to try some behavior modifications. There are a few different approaches to try.
  • It may be worth speaking with her, not about the intercom, but about how you want her to be successful and if she needs to hire and train a new support staff person every few months, she is not being as productive as she should be in her job. Make the conversation about her and what you can do to make her life easier.
  • When she bellows, count to three, then walk to her office door and in your calmest voice ask "May I help you with something?" When she answers "yes" ask her to press the intercom button so you can see if it works while you go back to pick up your pad and pen. If she says no, ask her to humor you. Repeat every time, every day. Eventually she will associate seeing you in the doorway with buzzing the intercom. This approach takes time, but is highly effective. Remember to stay calm and be patient.
In some ways, strategic etiquette is just like the television show Survivor. You must "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast" and do so politely. If there is an interpersonal interaction that is making you unhappy or uncomfortable, take the time to strategize. In life, there are always many options when we first stop and think. I do hope you will join me in resolving to make our behavior in 2008 more strategic instead of reactionary, and, of course, more polite.

After all, manners do matter!