27 Chapters
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15. The Mystery of Good Manners

Fleming, Carol Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub


The details and formalities of good manners vary wildly around the world. Knowledge of cultural practices is becoming increasingly important as we travel more and as America becomes more diverse through immigration. There is some form of small talk in all cultures, ranging from a little to a lot. We’ll look at some examples in this chapter.

The range of good manners is a book in itself and I’m not the one to write it, but there is something important to recognize beyond specific cultural practices and that is the concept of politeness. I find it useful to consider politeness as being on a gradient between warmth and respect, friendliness and formality. Warmth obviously includes smiling, leaning in, informal language, contact, and proximity. Respect, on the other hand, is more serious, characterized by distance, and warrants the use of formal forms of address. Most cultures have a point on this gradient that typifies their most comfortable stance in new relationships. A deviation from what they understand as polite will probably be interpreted as rude and will mark you as a Them, so you will need to pay attention to their habits.

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Chapter 2: Resolving Specific Problems

Fleming, Carol Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Focusing attention on specific issues works! A vague wish about a generalized outcome doesn’t. In this section, I will give you steps to resolve specific problems. Select one communication goal that you are the most motivated to achieve. If there are more than one, you can always go back after you’ve made reasonable progress on your first goal.

Consider the feedback you’ve gotten from others. How does it match up with your own listening? Many people are quick to defend themselves against critical description by attacking the source. “Oh, he just says I’m too loud because he really doesn’t want me in the office anyway!” I have seen people discredit some excellent feedback this way.

On the other hand, now that you’ve heard a recording of your own voice, some of your biggest problems may seem clear to you. It is not unusual to have a listener in my office who is flabbergasted by his or her own recorded speech. “Good heavens! I can’t even understand me! That’s what they’ve been trying to tell me!” I’ve heard this many times.

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3. Why Is “Talkin’ About Nothin' so Darned Hard?

Fleming, Carol Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub


So far you have learned that:

• Small talk is a light, pleasant, aimless verbal exchange that allows people the time and association to develop a sense of relationship. What is said is less important than the fact that we are actually saying anything to some particular person.

• There is no communication skill more important in the world than small talk.

• You love small talk. Yes, you do, as well you should. It is the music of our voices sounding in friendship.

• Small talk is the best cure for social anxiety. It is the one tool designed to turn scary “others” (Them) into friendly associates (Us).

• Shining the bright flashlight of your benign interest on others is the secret to transforming your self-consciousness into regard and respect for others.

• Your level of motivation and your persistence are the best predictors of your ability to challenge and change your communication habits.

You have also learned that what sounds so easy turns out not to be so. Let me count the ways!

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6. Just Say Hello, Leo

Fleming, Carol Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub


“I look like a serial killer.”

This is what Leo said after seeing our initial interview on video.

He was right. His immobile face, squint, and lack of expressive gesture were matched with the most minimal of verbal responses offered in a flat tone of voice. I glanced to make sure the door was partially open to the hallway.

Leo had experienced a life of social failure. Though highly educated, no one wanted to hire him at his professional level. With an Ivy League PhD, he was working at a cow-town bachelor’s-level job and had bitter stories about painful experiences, rejections, and a general lack of appreciation in the workplace. He was not on speaking terms with any family members. Enemies were plentiful; good friends and girlfriends, not so much.

He was equally frustrated in his living quarters. Indeed, that was what occasioned his appointment with me. His homeowners’ association (HOA) had voted to allow people to exercise their dogs in the grassy area right under his window. The dogs barked, the people talked, and Leo felt put upon and was seething with resentment. He had sent letters to the HOA leadership, but they apparently did nothing.

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17. How Do I Get Out of This?

Fleming, Carol Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub


How many of you find exiting an ongoing conversation fiendishly awkward? Everybody raised their hands? That’s what I thought.

We need to start at the beginning to appreciate the difficulty of this task. Notice how the big effort around starting small talk is on being positive, welcoming, warm, and helpful. It’s all smiles and nods among us. We are sending out approach signals:

• SOFTEN: Smile. Open posture. Forward lean. Touch. Eye Contact. Nod. (Chapter 12)

• ARE: Anchor, Reveal, Encourage (Chapter 5)

• There you are! (Chapters 2 and 11)

Then we develop the initial chat into conversation:

• Free information (Chapter 4)

• No orphans (Chapter 4)

• An “other” consciousness (Chapter 10)

And then . . . we make an exit.

The difficulty in terminating a conversation stems from the psychological discomfort of switching from positive social signals to what amounts to avoidance or rejection behavior. The party gets rough because we have to balance these opposing signals.

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