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Letitia Baldrige Is Bearish on Boorish Executives: Good Manners, She Says, Are Good Business

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Several years ago social arbiter Letitia Baldrige attended a lunch at which a rising young executive from Ohio was entertaining seven influential business associates at an expensive New York restaurant. He had been coached on which wines to order, but when the sommelier placed the moist cork in his hand, the young man stared at it uncomprehendingly. After a few anguished moments, he desperately bit off a piece of the cork and swallowed it. A merciful woman, Tish Baldrige, 58, has empathized with such gaffes for years and resolved to do something about them. The result is Letitia Baldrige’s Complete Guide to Executive Manners (Rawson Associates, $22.95), a 500-page volume that addresses questions ranging from elevator etiquette to what to do when you find someone stealing company funds.

The imposing 6’1″ Baldrige has viewed the social scene from many perspectives, all of them elevated. The sister of Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, she was raised in Omaha, the daughter of a Republican Congressman. After graduation from Vassar in 1946, she landed a job as social secretary to U.S. Ambassador to France David Bruce and his wife, Evangeline. A brief stint with the CIA followed, after which she moved to Rome to take over as social secretary to U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce. Baldrige returned to the U.S. to become public relations director for Tiffany & Co., then moved to the White House as Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary and chief of staff. The author of nine books, Baldrige has operated her own public relations and marketing consulting company since 1964. The mother of two, married to real estate executive Robert Hollensteiner, she spoke with Assistant Editor Susan Reed over tea in her Fifth Avenue apartment.

Why did you write this book?

For years I’ve watched people suffer who don’t know what to do in certain situations. When I was revising The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquettes 1978 I decided to include 30 pages on business etiquette. I must have gotten 300 calls the first year from corporations wanting to reprint it and distribute it to their employees. I realized there was a big market.

Why do executives need to know etiquette? Isn’t it the bottom line that counts?

Good manners are cost effective. They not only increase the quality of life in the workplace, they contribute to employee morale, embellish the company image and play a major role in generating profit. Etiquette also helps a person get ahead. How you handle yourself at meetings and how you handle people in the office is important. Even if you’re bright and a good salesman, it’s a negative if you’re uncomfortable and klutzy. Often people don’t realize they’ve been held back because they’ve offended someone.

Why is etiquette so necessary now?

Since 1960 we’ve had a very healthy social revolution in this country. There’s been tremendous upward mobility. Children who were never taught manners or who rebelled against their parents’ teaching are now making lots of money. And though they may have gotten top grades at business school, they don’t always know how to handle themselves at business functions and in fancy clubs and restaurants.

What are some of the most basic do’s and don’ts?

Knowing when and where to sit is something every young executive should learn. A junior person who comes barging into a room and takes any seat he wants catches the disapproving eye of senior management. Young people are not supposed to take their seats until their seniors have either signaled to them where they should sit or until their seniors have taken their own seats.

How should men and women executives greet each other?

Business colleagues who have not seen each other for a long time but who have a good relationship can always shake hands warmly and grab each other’s right upper arm or shoulder with their free left hand. Men and women executives should not kiss each other in public. Even air-kissing—the grazing of two cheeks in a fake kiss—looks particularly ridiculous in the workplace. And of course groping is strictly verboten.

What about office romances?

Office sex is rampant, not office romance. There is no book of sexual manners for the office because sex simply doesn’t belong in the office. It exists, in lesser and greater degrees, but the greater the degree the closer the situation approaches disaster. Like death and taxes, falling in love and establishing emotional relationships will happen. However, when it happens in the workplace, a whirlwind of gossip arises. One executive then has to leave—the one with the smaller salary, usually the woman.

Do you believe women business executives should dress conservatively?

Things will be a lot better as soon as we get women out of their little man-tailored suits with their little string ties and their cookie-cutter white blouses—trying to look like the boys. Quite frankly, to be female is a great asset in the workplace. One of the ways a woman can develop her assets is to dress suitably and beautifully. She should wear a dress or a soft, costumey suit, something that’s really attractive.

What should one know when traveling with high-powered executives?

If you are someone’s guest on a corporate jet, the most important thing to remember is not just to be on time, but to be early. If you hold up the departure of the jet by as much as 10 minutes, you may cause the plane to wait in line for another hour or two before obtaining new clearance. You should wait to board until after your host has boarded. When you land, always thank the crew and compliment them on a beautiful flight. If the flight was a rough one because of weather, mention how skillful they were.

What should someone know about doing business abroad?

The key to success in a foreign country is thoroughness of preparation and a sincere desire to fit into a new and different culture. It makes sense to learn a few key phrases in the country’s language, learn the names of leaders in politics, arts and sports, become familiar with the code of dress and familiarize yourself with any important religious taboos.

What are some rules of etiquette that shouldn’t be forgotten?

When in China don’t embrace, hug, kiss or pat a Chinese. They don’t like body contact with strangers. Refrain from making the okay sign [thumb and forefinger touching in a circle] in Greece. It’s an obscene gesture. Arabs are generous hosts and will be insulted if you refuse their offers of hospitality. Accept such offers after gracefully protesting that you don’t want to inconvenience your host. Also, Arabs are intensely private about their families; it’s considered rude to inquire about wives and children if you have not met them. Soccer is a safe subject for small talk.

What about giving gifts?

If you are going to send flowers to your hosts in a foreign country, check first with someone who knows the country well. In Germany, red roses symbolize lovers. In Japan, if you send a potted plant to someone who is ill, you are wishing him to be “rooted” in his illness. And never give an Argentinian a set of knives. It signals a desire to cut off the business relationship.

How important are telephone manners?

How your telephone is answered says a lot about you and your company. Everyone, even the CEO of a major corporation, should be able to handle with grace a telephone call from a person he doesn’t know. This kind of accessibility is so rare today that an important executive who answers his own phone or instructs his secretary to put through his calls automatically achieves instant fame and popularity. In my opinion there is only one thing worse in telephone manners than putting someone on hold, and that is putting someone on hold with music playing in the background.

What should you do when you forget someone’s name?

We all forget names. It’s a very human error. I have forgotten my college roommate’s name when introducing her. I have forgotten my boss’s wife’s name at my own party. And in my zest for introducing people, I have introduced husbands to wives. If you suffer a memory lapse, don’t think it an unsolvable crisis. Honesty is always the best policy. Just admit the name has slipped your mind. Generally, you will be forgiven.

What’s the worst breach of etiquette you ever made?

When I was social secretary to Mrs. Bruce in Paris I inadvertently sat a foreign office official next to his wife’s lover at a dinner. Everybody in Paris knew about it except me—everybody. So of course both men thought it had been done on purpose to humiliate one of them. I’ve done things like this all my life, and I’m still alive to talk about them.