Home >mint-lounge >business-of-life >Joanne Milner: Minding your Ps and Qs

What are modern-day manners all about? Do they include what we do online, on the dining table or during an interview? Joanne Milner, chief executive of Debrett’s, Britain’s leading authority on etiquette, spoke to us about employee etiquette and enhancing social skills. “People buy people, not products," she said at the recently concluded Mint Luxury conference in Mumbai. “The purpose of social skills is to allow your personality to come through, and if you are using good manners as a weapon, they are not good manners at all," she said at the conference.

We asked her what young graduates should do to brush up their social skills, how to deal with people from different cultures, and more. Edited excepts:

Do you think business schools should make lessons on manners mandatory?

Yes, I do. When I graduated and started work, I was sent for courses and taught how to handle online communication. Today, it is the reverse. People are confident about online communication but they are not specifically taught about offline communication and the social skills needed to build a rapport at work, with clients.

What are the people skills missing nowadays?

It is the confidence that you must have for face-to-face interactions that is missing. We took a survey in the UK with adults of varying age groups where more than 70% of the respondents said they were confident about creating an online profile and meeting people online. Less than 15% were confident about being able to walk into a room where they did not know people and work.

What are the two-three key things that people can do to improve face-to-face communication?

The overarching part of what we teach people is to put the other person at ease, and to do that you have to have a level of confidence in what you are doing as well.

Often you may not be at ease yourself because you are in an unfamiliar situation. So try and go through what those situations are and be confident yourself first. At Debrett’s, our programmes are quite bespoke because each person has a different need. Some people might have great body language but they are not confident in what they say. Other people could have a great way of selling themselves but their body language is putting a negative in what they are saying.

What kind of role do good social skills play in securing jobs in today’s market?

In the UK and the world over, the job market is so tough. There is so much focus on education. A lot of employers do say that I would rather have B-grade students with strong social skills than A-grade students but that is a lie because the B-grade students hardly ever get the interview. So you have to have both.

Young graduates spend so much time poring over books, making sure they have the academic qualification to get through the door, but they do tend to forget that they need to be themselves and to build their personal brand. Personal branding is very important. Most interview technique lessons that young graduates have learnt at school or at university make them very formulaic. They will trot out the right answers but those answers seldom give the interviewer a clue about who the person really is and that is what matters—knowing the person. Because in the end all the candidates have the academic qualifications to do the job but to pick one from the five who are being interviewed, the interviewer will pick who he or she likes best, who he/she thinks will work with clients and peers best.

How can you become more likeable to your interviewer?

You like people who are warm, engaging and who show a little bit of themselves. As a candidate, you might do all of that and somebody might not warm (up) to you. And that’s a good thing to find out before you take the job. After all, you want to be happy at the workplace. If it turns out that you are not going to fit well in that place, it’s better to know beforehand.

What is the right way to approach someone from a different culture at a business meeting?

There are two things to consider. One is that one of the persons in that meeting could do something that the other considers very rude. There are certain specifics that you should learn if you are meeting someone from a culture that is very different from yours. In terms of indulgingthe other person’s culture, it should be about putting them at ease, making them feel less nervous. If you are in the other person’s country, the onus is on you to find out about their culture and behave accordingly. You should be considerate to the other person.

At the workplace what kind of behaviour constitutes good manners, especially with peers and bosses?

At the workplace you are often competing with your peers, and that’s healthy and that’s fine, but do it in a way that is upfront and honest and you will be respected for that. I think it is quite challenging at the workplace today, particularly for young people, because it appears like you are working in a very flat structure. Everybody is very friendly with each other, you might go out in the evening together and it can appear quite social and quite flat, but there are hierarchies. It is just that they are more hidden these days and they can be hardy.

Ultimately your boss is your boss, and there is nothing wrong in developing a good relationship there, but you have to remember that while you may have an opinion and that you should express it, after it has been heard and debated, once the decision is made by your boss, you follow it.

Can you really transfer your letter-writing rules to emails?

If I am writing to you to request an interview, I must never forget to write the subject. If you are sending an attachment, don’t just send that alone but put in some information about it. If you were sending something to someone via post, would you not put a covering note with it? The same rule applies to emails.

What you don’t need, of course, is the postal address, etc. I would put a salutation and “Dear" upfront and “Yours Sincerely" at the bottom. You may come back with a “Hi Joanne" and then it would be all right to use a relaxed form of communication. Also, in emailing back and forth there comes a time when it is far better to just pick up the phone and call the other person. Nowadays this is something people seem to have an aversion to, and that is something you must overcome because a conversation gives you clues to what the other person feels or how they react.

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