01/28/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Business Etiquette - Or Just Basic Training?



There is some big news coming out of Colorado Springs. In order to graduate from the Air Force Academy, cadets will have to pass inspection in decorum.

Yes, you read that right. The "Social Decorum Training Program at the U.S. Air Force Academy" is soon to be a required course. I think it should be called "Political Correctness." It's so obvious. But nobody asked me. Again.

According to the federal government's website, the course, still under construction, will include social decorum training in military, business, communication, dining and social/professional etiquette. The class will even include event planning and invitation development and how to make introductions and even posture! My fourth-grade teacher, wherever she is, is thrilled. Below is a snapshot from the federal government's site:

SCOPE. Topics of instruction shall include but are not limited to: Social activities, event planning, personal correspondence (invitations, RSVPs, thank you notes), writing social correspondence, receiving lines and introductions, civility, behavior, basic hygiene, uniform wear and maintenance, appropriate civilian attire, posture, basic manners in a myriad of settings, common courtesies, telephone etiquette, table etiquette (settings, seating, decorum, conversation), the art of conversation (tact and diplomacy, small talk, use of proper language style, body language and non-verbal communication), social conduct in stressful situations, leadership roles outside the military structure, and ceremonies. Proper conduct and dress for functions such as USAFA Ring Dance, sponsor visits, USAFA graduation and commissioning ceremonies, dining-ins, dining-outs, events at commander's and general officer's quarters and formal and non-formal events in the community. The list above is not all inclusive, but it does provide some examples.

Did you see the line right there in the middle? That "art of conversation" bit? Otherwise known as "music to my ears?"

I have always believed that everyone deserves small talk skills. We're Americans after all! Freedom of speech is part of our foundation, so we might as well make it an interesting, pithy conversation, yes?

But there is more to life than small talk -- even I know that. After reading through the list, I realized that all the skills listed on the site are not just valid in today's world, but valuable. Even, dare I say, standards for success? But why the addition now?

This is only speculation -- and my call into the Obamas has yet to be answered event though I did spend the holidays with them (sort of), but perhaps it is because personal and professional etiquette is and always will be important to one's accomplishments. Because not everyone had the same fourth-grade teacher as me, a woman who understood that good manners and basic courtesies don't necessarily come naturally, but can and must be taught.

After all, you don't automatically know how to speak French or ride a bike or figure out the universal remote control (damn you universal remote control!), you must be taught and then you must practice, right? The same goes with the social graces. I should know -- I've made a career out of teaching people the Fine Art of Small Talk.

A recent article about Judith Martin's (aka Miss Manners) latest book, written with her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, explores the difficulties many face in the workplace. Most of the problems boil down to not understanding and embracing the most rudimentary points of civility. Miss Manners Minds Your Business is devoted solely to the ins and outs of professional behavior and acknowledges finding the balance between modern-day dilemmas and old-school manners.

This is a very confusing time to be alive. Life is changing so quickly that unless you are a hermit without electricity, you are likely to encounter social situations in which you simply don't know how to behave. This is especially true in the world of work.

Martin answers a myriad of questions about all sorts of issues, but finds that many questions center on workplace dilemmas such as inappropriate dress, abundant over-sharing of personal lives via social media, and smaller issues like foul-smelling lunches and constant interruptions by coworkers.

Dr. Perri Klass spoke to Miss Martin/Miss Manners about her own etiquette dilemmas and wrote about it in a blog for the New York Times. Dr. Klass is, well, she's a doctor so she was sort of under the impression that because of her status which undoubtedly included years of schooling and hundreds of thousands of dollars, she had every right to keep her patients waiting. Not surprisingly, Dr. Klass is not a big fan of being on the other side of the waiting room fence. Dr. Klass accompanied her mother on a doctor appointment and was more than a little frustrated with an unexplained delay:

Later that very same day, getting ready for my next patient, it made complete sense to me that first I had to read through the child's medical record on screen -- and then, yes, check my messages quickly, and then stand in the hallway and speak to a colleague for a little while -- all with the patient and her mother (and the next patient and his mother) sitting in the waiting room and, well, waiting.

Dr. Klass didn't mind making people wait, but hated when others made her wait. Don't we all?

And don't we all expect others to hold the door, dress appropriately, keep off-color jokes at home, send a thank you note, chew with a closed mouth, use a turn signal, shake hands, be familiar with the purpose of a napkin, stand up straight, not park in the handicap spot even if it is snowing, and carry on an interesting conversation?

Well, yes. But how we get there is the question. Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper, in his January State of the State address said, "Colorado is at her best when we are connected to one another, working together."

Yes! So the answer starts with understanding and embracing the fundamental skills that connect us all. Without the skills to communicate the next, great idea, the next, great idea could be lost.

So maybe it's time to travel back to the fourth grade, where most of us were taught the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. I think it's called basic training.