In a world in which the Speaker of the House ferociously rips up her copy of the President’s State of the Union Address before the eyes of millions of viewers, it’s not difficult to make the case that civility is in steep decline.
Our society’s loss of civility has long preoccupied Judith Bowman. Ms. Bowman, who specializes in teaching business etiquette, and is author of Don’t Take the Last Donut: New Rules of Business Etiquette, wants to do something about it. Bowman is founder of the National Civility Foundation and Protocol Consultants International, a firm, which provides corporate training in business etiquette. She’s a perfectionist. When members of the Saudi royal family visited her on her farm, she made sure the horses were washed to put their best hoof forward.
Bowman is in the process of completing her third book Modern Day Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, which takes its cue from George Washington’s famous 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. Some of Washington’s rules still apply, others don’t. But the spirit that imbues them does not change.
Bowman’s career working with high-powered executives at Fortune 500 companies grew out of a business she created first called The Etiquette School of Boston when she taught manners to children. “So, there I was, six or seven months into my business,” she recalls, “and unbeknownst to me, in one of my young adult classes, there was a reporter who ended up writing a story that landed on the front page of the newspaper. The headline was something like ‘Woman Makes Living Teaching Manners to Children.’
Bowman is in the process of completing her third book Modern Day Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.
“As a result of that story, a couple of really fun things happened. One, the paper sold out. Two, I received calls from three Fortune 500 CEOs basically asking, ‘Can you do for our corporate executives what you do for children?’ And one of the big networks sent in a crew to film a class. They asked me to get together a mock class of 50. I actually conducted my very first corporate class at Wentworth University, and on national TV. I went corporate, and ever since I’ve worked with companies of all sizes.”
Launched in 1993, Protocol Consultants International seeks to instill in its participants professional presence, “global awareness” and help them acquire the basic skills for “dining savvy” and to “heighten awareness of personal behavior and its impact on relationships in business and social settings.” According to Bowman, “basic people skills” are integral to leadership yet quickly becoming a lost art.” Bowman also teaches politicians and royalty. Protocol Certification is offered to those who would like to train to be a business protocol consultant.
While Bowman is a stickler for timeless, traditional rules and codes of conduct and behavior (she shudders at seeing what is known as “the banjo grip”—people grasping the fork as they would hold a stringed instrument), she focuses on values that underlie manners and civility: trust, personal contact, and respect for others. Developing trust in business situations is an important topic in Don’t Take the Last Donut. A friendly tone of voice, the right small talk (brief—it’s the polite prelude to business, and it sets the tone, but don’t go on too long), and body language help develop trust, a virtue that Bowman says is sorely lacking in our society.
While Bowman is a stickler for timeless, traditional rules and codes of conduct and behavior, she focuses on values that underlie manners and civility: trust, personal contact, and respect for others.
“Trust has been so severely compromised,” Bowman says, “in the worlds of politics, religion, sports, education, Hollywood, and beyond. Our challenge is to build trust to establish and cultivate critical interpersonal relationships because the world revolves around interpersonal relationships. I want to do business with you because I know you, I like you, I trust you. And people hire people, engage companies, do repeat business, and give referrals to people they know and like, on the basis of trust. It isn’t the company, it’s not necessarily because of the brand, but because of the person and the trust that they have earned during the relationship building process.”
Technology, she says, has contributed to the erosion of trust. “The very technology designed to connect us so efficiently has had the opposite effect,” Bowman says. “We have never been more disconnected from each other. People hide behind their keyboards and may feel they don’t have to meet people face to face. But there’s absolutely nothing that will ever replace the human connection of, say, a warm handshake, looking into someone’s eyes, reading their body language, being in their presence. It’s irreplaceable. We should recognize the gift that technology offers to augment and strengthen versus replace critical ‘people skills’ integral to leadership.”
Another contributing factor, according to Bowman, is that we now live in a global world—and too often, we don’t go out of our way to get to know our neighbors. “We now are just so diversified and there are so many people from different cultures that we don’t know or understand, we tend to maybe withdraw or not go out of our way to get to know people. That’s a missed opportunity.”
Bowman grew up in Syracuse, New York, where her family instilled in her the values that she teaches today. “My father came from very humble roots,” she says. “He became a successful real estate developer, and so he was out among judges and lawyers and bankers. He wanted to make sure that we knew, as we went out in the world, the importance of things like shaking hands, making eye contact, gentlemen standing for ladies, and that, in setting a table, the serrated edge faces in. We were just brought up this way. My parents entertained a lot, and we were trained to be the quintessential junior hosts and hostesses.”
The family sat down to dinner together every night. “My mother would hold dinner for my father until eight or nine o’clock at night to eat as a family,” Bowman recalls, “and we were expected to come to the table prepared with dinner talk, table talk, conversation. Whether it was a current events discussion, or a book we were reading, or something interesting or noteworthy that we learned that day, whatever it was, we were expected to contribute to the dinner table talk conversation. And that’s not always the case these days. And those are timeless, irreplaceable values not as present today that help mold and shape us.”
Bowman was appalled by the impeachment spectacle, and finds fault with both sides of the aisle.
She adds, “I am of the Boomer generation, and I believe that we, individually and collectively, are somewhat guilty of not perpetuating the key values and traditions with which we grew up.”
Bowman went on to Boston College, from which she graduated, and then took Harvard extension courses in business communication. Another result of the story on the children’s course, she was invited to write a column for New England’s award-winning Eagle Tribune Publishing Company, which she did for ten years. She also created a series called “Glass Ceiling Shattered” that profiled successful Massachusetts women.
The media, Bowman believes, is partly responsible for the breakdown of civility. “I will never forget Katie Couric, who was very popular at the time, and had the attention of a lot of people, interviewing three heads of state. She was dressed in her ski sweater and pants, while they were wearing suits, and she kept calling them ‘you guys.’ So disrespectful. And I said, ‘What is happening to the media in this country?’ If Katie Couric can address these heads of state, as ‘you guys,’ what is going on? And it was downhill from there. ”
“Just recently, Martha MacCallum, whom I happen to admire, on Fox, was talking to a respected general, and she called him ‘Jack.’ Jack this, Jack that. I was offended by the lack of respect in not using his honorific. She may address the general privately as Jack. But that doesn’t mean it is correct publicly on national TV. The use of first names is a topic in my book. If you have ‘earned the right’ and are given the grace of calling someone by their first name, you don’t do it in front of their employees, or in front of a national TV audience.”
You might not be surprised to learn that Bowman was appalled by the impeachment spectacle, and finds fault with both sides of the aisle. “Well,” she says, “the House managers not only insulted the senators, but anyone who supports Trump. I mean, it was unbelievable. It made me think of Hillary Clinton’s comment, when she called people deplorables.”
When Bowman heard someone described as a Trump ‘hater’, she bristled. Rather than using the sharp and biting “H” word, “We should be more intentional in our choice of words, as words are powerful and evoke emotion. Hatred is a very strong, negative emotion. Instead, we should say something like ‘She’s not a Trump supporter,’ or frame it in a gentler, more tolerant and enlightened way, which requires effort on all our parts. Disdain of others has overwhelmed us, overtaken both parties, and become so divisive, tearing the country in half. We should all make a conscious effort to consider and even reconsider the words that we use and make a concerted effort to refrain from using the H-word.”
So, it is irresistible. The question must be asked: What about President Trump, assailed by his opponents as the man who killed civility in politics. What about President Trump? Bowman is refreshingly iconoclastic on this:
“Well, I’ll tell you,” she replies. “I am a huge Trump supporter. I have so much respect for his ability, for what he’s accomplished on his own before he was even President. His children are a huge testament to him and the man that he is. I think, you know, all of us are human, and you know that thing about glass houses. Of course, he’s not perfect and he can do and say things that people might not like, including me.”
She continues, “But look at the flipside of that, President Donald Trump has shown himself to be incredibly effective. A lot of people like his direct approach, his tell it like it is and does he get carried away a bit? Perhaps. But look at his results as a savvy businessman, a leader, and where we are with the economy, unemployment, border security, respect and admiration on the international front.”
As you can see, Judith Bowman’s balanced approach to etiquette, blending rules with values, is something very much needed today in Washington. Perhaps we can encourage her to open a branch office on Capitol Hill.