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Jessica Catto Headshot

How Do You Do? Smile When You Say That

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Manners. Well, what of them? After all, they are just some old-fashioned, lavender ladies tea cup stuff. Hardly the communication of choice for the macho, get-it-done set.

But think again about how important signals are in successful relationships, political, business, and personal. How we meet and greet people tells a great deal about whether our negations and our friendships will flourish or fail. Good manners are about good will much more than they are about the use of the proper fork.

President Obama's politeness and respectful attitudes toward his opponents as well as his fellow leaders have reaped great benefit for us as a country already. (I do, however, draw the line at bowing to the Saudi King. An American President can offer respect without the bending of the body.)

Yes, there are critics who feel that he should not express politesse to the likes of Venezuela's President Chavez, but if that simple handshake and smile produce some policy traction, then we are closer to pinning the tail on the donkey. What we want to accomplish in politics, business, and foreign relations is best begun with a genial gesture, no matter how peevish you feel. If you need to reverse course, you have lost nothing. On the contrary, you have put the other person on the defensive, just the right place for Chavez or Iran's President Ahmadinejad.

Politeness and manners do not equate with weakness; they equate with astuteness. Keep the eye on the doughnut not the hole. A handshake can turn into a fist as fast as a hummingbird can dive. You have a better chance at reaching your objective, however, if civility and acuity carry the day.

World leaders appreciate being treated with deference by their powerful American counterpart. A respectful attitude is more likely to result in reciprocity farther down the road than heavy-handed "big kid on the block" conduct. Some columnists suggest that this is "apologizing" on behalf of the United States. Their naiveté is showing.

An example of the folly of the snarl replacing the smile happened with Iran in May of 2003. From The Inheritance, by David Sanger:

A long fax appeared at the State Department from the Iranian government through a Swiss intermediary. It stated, among other things, 'full transparency for security that there are not Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD' and decisive action against {al Qaida}.

Former Vice President Cheney and other hawks dismissed it out of hand. American success in Iraq would deal with Iran. So an opportunity for some steps forward was treated with disdain instead of interest. We will never know if opening talks then would have allayed the deep distrust in which we operate now and if the world now would be a safer place.

Consider when a new arrival enters your house or a room: you rise to make them feel welcome. When you walk over to say hello to an acquaintance in a restaurant, they stand up to greet and show friendliness. There is another reason. When you rise you are then on equal footing; no one has an advantage. This old balancing act is reassuring.

Handshakes are Western and equalitarian: no bowing and only fractional acknowledgment of position. Different cultures have different rituals expressing manners. Diplomats and business executives devote time and study to customs and manners in other countries and cultures in order to avoid embarrassment and offensive behavior. Just basic common sense. Knowledge is power.

Manners evolve over time. Kissing of the hand has had its day and no great loss. The attitude toward your fellow, however, does not change. You still help someone across a street or a neighbor in need. You do not belittle someone in a weakened state. The Good Samaritan still prevails; he represents essential good manners.

Entering an office as a visitor tells you a lot about the person behind the desk. Does he or she come around and shake hands, a sure signal of easy greeting; or does the person simply stand (you still have a chance); or not rise at all (you might as well turn off your PowerPoint). These are games we play for domination of the business, political, sporting and personal landscape. We are all familiar with tactics of intimidation and bullying. The practitioners of such tactics may seem all powerful to themselves for a time, but those methods fail in the end. We also all know the famous advice of Teddy Roosevelt, to "speak softly and carry a big stick." Ronald Reagan took that advice with Mr. Gorbachev as down came the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. He did it with a smile and amiable manners. Worked wonders. Honey really does work better than sandpaper.

President Obama, go the distance for us with the affable, collegial approach. Our future looks brighter as a result. Good manners come from strength and intelligence.

GOOD MANNERS TO OUR EARTH, TODAY AND EVERY DAY