#17 – November 2020 “On Courtesy…” | SASIG
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These are difficult times for us all. The global pandemic has already killed far too many, physically harmed countless more, upended our lives, restricted our freedoms, changed our everyday behaviours, and introduced real and major uncertainties about all our futures. Now, with the new lockdown, we’re back to the where we started and many of us are wondering if it will ever end.


This isn’t just another flu. For the first time in my life, there’s a random disease out there in our streets, offices and homes that can and will kill, given the chance. For the first time in my life, there is a chance (albeit small) that going to the pub could lead to my demise. Many of us are scared, rightly or wrongly, and there seems to be no immediate end in sight.


So, whether we like it or not, we’ve all been thrown together on this one. We’re only going to get through it if we all unite. Never before, in my living memory, has it been so important for everyone to be nice to each other, to think of others’ safety before our own immediate (and often selfish) needs, to do what we can and must to slow the spread of the virus, to empathise with and react to how others are feeling, to be kind, to be civil, and to be generous in thought and deed – in short, to be courteous.


At the start, we all clapped the NHS and three-quarters of a million of us volunteered to help in our neighbourhoods. There was a real and tangible Dunkirk spirit, a sense of us all being part of the same country-wide community. Inevitably, this bonhomie has diluted as the months have passed but I believe it’s still there. We can be nice to each other if we want to, and if we try.


But this is not just about Covid. Even before the crisis I was reflecting on the importance of courtesy in our lives generally, at home and at work. I’ve been noticing for quite some time now how the common niceties of life are being increasingly overlooked, especially in our professional lives. There seems less occasion for politeness. We’re all time poor, in more of a rush, more inwardly focussed, more selfish and less careful about others around us. I see this even more when we’re online. The whole social media scene magnifies this general sense of carelessness – people behave in such horrible ways, and say such horrible things, that they would never dream of doing in the ‘real’ world. The cauldron of online hate and bile then spills so easily into real life.


This is all such a terrible shame. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted to me the importance of courtesy, and how it can help everyone cope better in these difficult days. Indeed, in recent months I have been trying consciously to be a kinder and more courteous person and I feel better for it. I’d like to encourage others to do the same.



What is courtesy?

Courtesy (noun) [ˈkəːtɪsi] · Courtesies (plural noun)
The showing of politeness in one’s attitude and behaviour towards others. A polite remark or considerate act.
Synonyms: politeness, good manners, civility, respect, graciousness, kindness, thoughtfulness, consideration, discretion, decency
Antonyms: discourtesy, rudeness


The word comes from Old French, describing the rules that nobles had to follow when they gathered together in court. Courtesy, I was taught from an early age, costs nothing and helps make life bearable. “Nothing is more noble than politeness”, goes the traditional proverb. Manners, my old mum used to say, help to oil the world. Good manners, my old dad said, show your respect for others and you’ll earn it back tenfold; he was a gentleman in the truest sense – a gentle man.


Courtesy isn’t difficult. A good relationship involves endless courtesy from both sides. At the most basic level, it’s about remembering our Ps and Qs (Please and Thank You). It involves simple acts like listening, not interrupting, seeing the other’s point of view, admitting errors and forgiving others for theirs. It’s about being patient with others, accepting their shortcomings whilst acknowledging our own. It’s about saying sorry when we’re in the wrong, helping others whenever we can (see the bucket of favours), and treating others as our equals, especially in the workplace. (Explaining that “Fred works with me” rather than “Fred works for me” is a small but important differentiation that goes a huge way in building team morale and cooperation.)


There are good, practical reasons for politeness; courtesy illustrates deference, humility, tact, modesty and gratitude, all endearing qualities to others. Kindness and consideration will show you as a respectable, thoughtful person. Since you will only ever be treated the way you treat others, it simply makes sense to be nice. Research shows that courteous people are liked more by others, who are then in turn more likely and ready to help. Being nice just makes you a more pleasant person to live with and be around. Being nice is easier; not being nice often takes more time and effort than being nice and certainly doesn’t feel as good.


In 1908 “The Compendium of Every Day Wants: Or Practical Information for the Millions” by Luther Minter included the following definition: “A thorough gentleman, courteous and well-bred, will never give offense intentionally, and will not permit himself to be easily offended. He is always quick to forgive and ready to confess a fault and seek pardon when he wrongs another.” Oh, and of course, the same is true for a lady. (Oscar Wilde is attributed to the subsequent quote “a gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally”, a subtle change that alters the sentiment entirely; I prefer the original.)



Why is courtesy important in business?

Courtesy in the workplace eases workflows, helps develop strong, professional relationships amongst employees, and furthers their careers. There are strong, tangible and measurable benefits to good behaviour in the workplace.


Professional courtesy, thought to have begun within the medical profession, describes the behavioural etiquette expected between peers within the same field. Professional courtesy will define an organisation’s culture and ethics, and flows from the top down. (I spoke very recently with a sales manager whose boss communicates to his whole team by shouting and bullying; morale is at rock bottom and their sales figures are rubbish.) There is simply no point in being cross with everyone the whole time, most people are trying their best! You’ll get the best out of most (but not all) people – whether you work with them or for them – by being courteous.



Customer courtesy

Customer courtesy refers to the behaviour of employees in all parts of an organisation that affects their customers’ experience. It will influence how customers buy and whether they come back. Last year, on moving to Whitby, the service provided by our removals company was appalling and I complained. Their complaints department was also awful, I was made to feel in the wrong. But then on Christmas Eve their MD took time out to ring me personally to apologise for everything that had happened to us before and since the move, that how his team had behaved on the day and since in response to our concerns was unacceptable, and that he would refund us £500 at once as a gesture of goodwill. In an instant, he recovered the situation and I’d use them again; everyone should get a second chance. So, there are strong and tangible benefits to behaving well towards our customers.


But good behaviour by customers towards their suppliers is also important and can in turn reap huge rewards; suppliers are not the enemy and do not wish to perform badly, but as is human nature they will inevitably respond to how they’re being treated. Be careless with your suppliers and they are more likely to be careless with you; treat them courteously and they will always go that extra mile. I know I do.


(In the late ‘60s, I worked as a waiter in a hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland. Most residents were delightful, but occasionally there would be guests who treated the staff very poorly; for these we had a special treat. In a stage whisper, one of us waiters would say to another, just as the miscreant guest was starting their meal, “Look, he’s actually eating it!” and then walk away. We didn’t have to do anything else. It worked every time…)




Cyberspace is a whole new world of discourtesy. The internet is no longer a benign environment, it has become an unfriendly, unforgiving, often cruel place. For many, an internet connection excuses them not just of the common courtesies but even of decent and legal behaviour. Rudeness, harassment and worse are fair game. Why is this?


There are no nuances online. Sarcasm, wit, tone, empathy – all are lost in translation. But then people behave in cyberspace in ways they’d never dream of doing in the real world. They change unrecognisably. The internet makes too many people completely disregard all the basic rules of society. For many, the ugly email messages, foul language, and cruel posts on social media and digital forums give licence for much worse behaviour – cyberbullying, revenge porn, political intolerance, racism, sexism and more.


The number of communications that we read or join in makes it more likely that we’ll encounter rudeness and incivility. Add to the mix the ability to reply instantly and it’s inevitable that rudeness begets more rudeness in an increasing spiral. There are no barriers, nothing external to slow you down, and it is just too easy to be impulsive.


But at a much deeper level, many people’s lives are difficult and challenging in every way, especially during the Covid crisis. They are experiencing real anger, frustration and fear that needs an outlet. The sense of invisibility one gets while sitting at a keyboard means one no longer needs to consider the feelings of others, and empowers one to let rip at anybody and anything. Often the person being attacked, or the topic under discussion, is irrelevant; the author is simply lashing out. The real and growing danger, though, is when these online inhibitions bleed into the real world. We see examples of this every day in the Press, especially in the context of local, national and world politics. Twitter now has the power to sway elections, disinformation and insults are now common currency, and it’s all becoming scary.


For now, there are no established social protocols for online behaviour; norms and etiquette are still evolving. But good behaviour in cyberspace is essential for everyone’s sake and I believe there is hope. Typically, as rules become established for new phenomena like cyberspace, there grows a backlash against those who behave badly and eventually don’t or won’t conform. For example, smoking was glamorous in my youth, but nowadays smokers are marginalised by both law and social pressure. Ditto drinking and driving – in my day it was almost compulsory! As online communities become less tolerant of rude behaviour, hopefully those who violate the norms will become marginalised and lose social standing.


But there’s still some way to go. And of course, there will always be the Mr Angry, the narcissist, the wannabe-victim, the zealot, and the bully. Social norms and pressure will never stop them. For now, all we can do is our own small part to make the internet – and real life – that much nicer and safer a place to live and work:
  • Everything lasts forever on the internet, so be careful what you post.
  • Be conscious of anything and everything you say in your own postings. My own preferred option is simply to stay away from the rougher end of social media and stick to nothing more dangerous or controversial than LinkedIn.
  • Don’t become embroiled in online arguments. Resist the urge to respond when provoked.
  • If you do get tempted into writing something in anger or exasperation, pause overnight (or at least a couple of hours) to allow your blood to cool before posting it. Even then, ask yourself just how important the issue in question is, and if the world really cares what you or others think. In any case, today’s big online row is usually forgotten by tomorrow.
  • Ignore hostile attacks. Do nothing to stoke the flames. Your tormentors will become bored and find someone/something else upon which to focus their ire.



Oh, and please be kind to salespeople and recruiters, they are humans too


Within the context of social media, more and more I’m seeing hurtful generalisations from some of the CISO community towards vendors, suppliers and recruiters, as if they were the enemy. But we are all part of the same continuum. We all contribute to the protection and resilience of UK plc whichever side of the so-called “divide” we sit. Most salespeople and recruiters are highly professional and talented in their own rights and deserve respect. Some, to be fair, are sharks. Others are unskilled and clumsy, and their techniques are often ineffective and irritating. But to be fair, I’ve met some pretty rubbish in-house people over the past 40 years too!


This partisanship strikes me as unnecessary and unhelpful. We’ve all seen those protracted and indulgent online conversations about how terrible sales people are, how recruiters are even worse, how clumsy their scattergun approaches are, how rubbish they all are, how tedious it is to deal with their unwanted and unwelcome solicitations, how the authors’ lives are blighted by these unwarranted intrusions, “don’t they know how busy I am?”, “I’m far too important…” blah, blah. In one such tirade this week, someone on LinkedIn referred to all salespeople as ‘sleazebags’ – harsh, I thought, and inaccurate. They’re just people, with their own jobs to do and their own problems to deal with. Further, the Covid crisis has narrowed their options for building relationships with customers; how else can they approach you?


So, as a special plea, can we all try to be nicer to everyone who reaches out to us for whatever reason?


Start with a kind response if possible. I always respond to polite sales messages regardless, even just to thank them for being polite. Then generally, I reply straight that I’m not buying/recruiting and therefore I advise them I am a waste of their valuable time and to try elsewhere where they might find more fertile ground. Occasionally, when it’s deserved, I will thank the approacher for their innovative pitch but again tell them I’m not buying. For some, I will offer short advice as to why their pitch failed to strike home with me and offer some suggestions – this is where we can, for example, suggest they research us before they start, show they’ve an understanding of our needs, and stay real and not promise the world. For the particularly crass ones, or those that don’t take the hint and persist, or if you really don’t have the time to engage with any of them, then I suggest you simply delete, unsubscribe, or refer their future messages to junk mail. We can just ignore them, you know. It’s not personal!


Receiving such traffic is just part of modern life. In the good old days, we used to get junk mail through the letterbox, sales pitches on the telephone, and knockers at the front door – so this is nothing new. In any case, all CISO staff are (or should be) salespeople too, selling their services internally and to their organisation’s own customers/suppliers. And take care too – CISOs could find themselves in sales roles one day!


At its most basic, being nice to salespeople and recruiters is just another example of where and when each of us can, with just a little bit of effort, show compassion and tenderness towards our fellows. It costs nothing.



And finally – a nod to everyone’s mental health and welfare

One final word; we have no idea what mental state others might be in, and what stresses and strains anyone is suffering in these extremely difficult times. Crikey, many of us don’t even realise the strain we are under ourselves, the pressure all of this is putting on each of us, and how it’s probably affecting our own behaviours and tolerances towards others.


So, be kind. Be gentle. Be polite. Handle others’ feelings with care. Imagine yourself in their shoes and pause for just a moment before you react. What you say and how you behave has enormous impact on all those around you at home and at work. A careless word or deed can cause huge hurt without us even realising or noticing. A smile or a thank you can go such a long way to cheering others up.
Whatever you say or do today, do it with kindness in your heart.

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Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.

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