In our first executive team meeting of the year, we were asked to share two goals, one departmental and one personal. The department goals clustered around things like productivity and profitability. The personal goals were also fairly standard—lose weight, make time to work out, read more books—until it was my turn: “I want to regain my Princess manners.”
Reader, let me explain.
When I worked at an agency, I had high standards when it came to manners. I told my team, “Every email starts with a salutation (“Hi Joan”) and a greeting (“Happy New Year”) and ends with a close (“Very best, Meghan”)—no exceptions. Then I left the agency for a job at a start-up where our job descriptions specified: “Must move at the speed of light.”
During the past eight months, I’ve found myself increasingly likely to shoot out one line emails that lack all niceties. My grandmother, who made sure I knew not only which fork was which but how to pour tea, would be appalled.
And she’d be appalled for good reasons. Manners, as Gamma told me, might seem superficial, but they’re not. They’re not about performing, or showing off what you know, and they are never for making other people feel bad. “Manners are what smooth the rough edges off the world,” she told me.
That’s why, when my nieces were little, we had tea parties to practice our princess manners. We were careful to put our napkins on our laps, yes—but we also practiced complimenting each other (“What a lovely dress!”), accepting compliments gracefully (“How very kind of you to say so!”), making each other feel welcome (“Please do take this chair; it’s more comfortable”) and being generous (“Oh, no, you must have the last cookie; I couldn’t eat another bite”). Princess manners make you the kind of person other people want to have around.
It’s not the pink-robed Disney princesses who inspire me, nor even Princess Kate, elegant as she is. No, the princess whose manners I aspire to emulate is Sarah Crewe, the heroine of the classic children’s book, "The Little Princess." Sarah is a little girl in Victorian England whose father owns diamond mines in India—until he doesn’t. Forced to live as a servant in the school where she had been a “parlor boarder,” Sarah struggles to continue to behave like a princess despite cold, hunger and rudeness.
“It has been hard to be a princess today, Melchisedec," she confesses to the rat she’s tamed as a pet after one particularly challenging day. "It has been harder than usual. It gets harder as the weather grows colder and the streets get more sloppy. When Lavinia laughed at my muddy skirt as I passed her in the hall, I thought of something to say all in a flash--and I only just stopped myself in time. You can't sneer back at people like that if you are a princess."
Princess manners are all about taking other people’s feelings into consideration. They make people feel better about the world and their place in it. John F. Kennedy exhibited them when he drank the water in his finger bowl because his guest had and he did not want the guest to realize his error and be embarrassed.
Princess manners aren’t about being better than other people; they’re about being just a little bit bigger, because you can. And as such they’re particularly important for managers, because being a manager confers power—and power should be wielded with due regard for its effects.
And so, dear reader, I invite you to join me in adopting the Princess Manners Manifesto for 2013.
I will say “please” and “thank you” to my team—always.
I will say “hello” and “good bye” in my emails, no matter who I am addressing or how often I write to them.
I will remember that because I am a team leader, my “requests” may seem like orders—even if that’s not what I intend—and I will phrase and prioritize them accordingly.
I will refrain from gossiping about others or making snide remarks. Instead, I will strive to be kind and inspire others to be as well.
When I am irritated by something petty, I will take a deep breath, bite my tongue and strive not to show it.
Perhaps most important, I will not let stuff roll downhill. When pressure and stress come my way, I will be conscious and careful about passing them along.
Sarah Crewe’s reward for behaving like a princess despite adversity was riches—the diamond mines turned out to exist after all, and she traded her garret for luxury. I can’t promise you that. But everyone who signs on to the Princess Manners Manifesto will smooth a few rough edges off the world, and that’s a worthy goal.
Beth Haiken is the VP of corporate citizenship and communications at Waypoint Homes. She can be reached at email@example.com