The Bad Manners Bug: The Infestation Continues

Yes, it sounds like the title of a bad horror movie, and for those of us trying to conduct business, it’s just that. About 11 years ago, I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Business Journal titled “Infection Alert: The ‘Bad Manners Bug.’” In it, I bemoaned the sorry state of business communications at the time:

For example, a commonly used recorded announcement proclaims, “Your call is important to me. Please leave a message, and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” Unfortunately, this oft-repeated refrain is just that and nothing more. Perhaps people should modify their automated greetings to be more accurate. The standard could be something like, “Your call may or may not be important to me. I may or may not return the call. If I do, it may take up to six months.” While this may be more truthful, is it really what business professionals want to convey?

Clearly, my piece didn’t change the world of business communications. I would bet that most of you reading this have experienced frustration in the past week over someone who won’t return a phone call or answer an e-mail. It makes you wonder how any business gets done. And don’t get me started on those many companies that don’t even provide an employee directory on their websites. You’re lucky to get a generic form to fill out, which I’m pretty certain is dropped into the cyber version of the circular file when you click “send.”

There are lots of solutions for this problem: eliminating voicemail systems and replacing them with real people or setting company culture starting in the c-suite. But the real problem isn’t policy-based or procedural—it has to do with how people today treat one another. If any policy should be enforced, it should be the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Put yourself in the place of someone who’s trying to reach you by phone or e-mail. How would you feel if your calls and e-mails were ignored? Frustrated? Angry? Would you feel like an important customer or business partner? Are phone calls and e-mails only important when you’re the one who’s sending them?

Policies and procedures are hollow and meaningless without morals and ethics to guide them. I think the present state of affairs is summed up well by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who deftly handles the reverse problem: an intrusive telemarketer. By getting the telemarketer to put himself in Jerry’s position, Mr. Seinfeld makes his point quite well:

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