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There are yards of useful bromides about how politeness greases the wheels of civilization, but the bottom line is that rudeness in the workplace can be as damaging to the organization as it is to the individual.

A friend who works at a large corporation tells of the impact of a new boss, brought to replace a divisional head who had handled the job with a rare natural grace.

The new head honcho-very able and probably a lot smarter than his predecessor- has no time for pleasantries. He’s rude to subordinates, scornful of his peers, dismissive of clients. And his attitude has trickled down through the ranks.

It’s not just that people aren’t putting the effort into their work that they used to.

“What’s just as bad is the way people talk about him,” said my friend with a shrug. “It’s the same way he talks about other people-and that’s destroying any respect they might have had for him.”

It’s exactly that kind of impact on the organization that may keep the divisional head from rising much further in the ranks. A banker who has worked with senior people from client firms noted that it’s usually the very top people in an organization who are most polite.

“Maybe it is frustration at not cracking the top level that makes the less successful people ruder,” she speculated. “Or maybe it’s that behaviour that’s kept them where they are.”

We North Americans seem to have an ambivalent attitude toward the niceties of human interaction, equating politeness with being wimpy. And the sixties didn’t help, either: Any generation that lives out its adolescence in an era in which dirty feet are a fashion accessory is going to have a tough time with fish forks and finger bowls.

Maybe that is why there’s now a crop of business etiquette books available. There’s nothing like the hunger for corporate success to summon up a dim echo of mom’s voice, reminding us to write thank you notes and keep our elbows off the table.

But a quick riffle through their pages underlines one problem: These books don’t seem to deal with workplaces on this planet. “Don’t gossip,” they advise. “Don’t make friends with co-workers. Don’t tell off-colour stories. Don’t read papers on other people’s desks.”

Unfortunately, these bloodless homilies ignore the complexities of our workplaces. Most of us gossip, chum around, and break the monotony or madness of the moment with appallingly inappropriate remarks.

But none of that behaviour is necessarily impolite-not if the situation demands it, and it’s done with a certain amount of grace.

It is the grace part that’s a challenge. Many who get tagged as jerks just aren’t aware of the impact of their behaviour on others (although over time, they certainly should be). In others, impatience triggers chronic rudeness as the quickest way to get a response.

But, of course, bad behaviour is its own penalty. Despite being tolerated in some industries, especially if it’s allied to talent, rudeness is a time bomb that will eventually destroy whoever wields it too often. Someone who’s been around the trading rooms of the Bay Street since the heady days of the eighties has noticed that the people who’ve survived into this leaner decade are the ones with good manners.

Besides, It’s so much more fun to be polite-because in a nasty situation, it drives the other person crazy.

I remember an executive secretary in one workplace who was describing a run-in on the telephone. “The louder he yelled,” she said with a great deal of satisfaction, “the quieter I made my voice.”

Someone I work with uses a similar technique. Despite the intense pressures of his job, his manners are unshakeable-even towards those who waste his time when they know better. With them, he manages to be scathing while still exquisitely polite. He can accomplish more by raising one eyebrow than by throwing a chair across the room.

So is there any hope for boors like me? Yes, with a lot of thought and effort.

“I really have to work at being polite,” said a middle manager with an admitted short fuse that’s come to realize the importance of the social graces. “I figure it took me 35 years to learn to be as badly behaved as I am, so it’s going to take a while to learn not to be.”

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