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The Trickle-Down Etiquette Effect

Displaying the proper business etiquette to everyone -- from assistant to boss -- can have a powerful effect.

Editor's note: Welcome to our new weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

The key to graciousness is to treat everyone exactly alike, as if each were your best customer -- or your boss.

Nothing greases the wheels more than pampering someone's ego. It doesn't even take money (a smile, compliment or kind word can do the trick), but it pays off now, and it provides dividends later. It's the best kind of investment -- a sure thing. Unlike, say, bets against global warming.

And so, Miss Conduct's Basic Rules of Etiquette:

    Treat everyone as if they were your boss.

    Your boss is perfect in every way.

    Always be entertaining. If you can't be funny, then flatter, even if it involves creative application of the truth.

    Rule One

    Miss Conduct's first rule, "Treat everyone as if they were your boss," is just a gloss on the Golden Rule, in which we strive to treat everyone the way we'd like to be treated. Naturally, everyone likes to be in charge (as long as it's not payday). Therefore, Miss Conduct strives to conduct herself so that no one fires her -- at least that's her story, and she's sticking to it.

    If grace is a swan gliding across a pond, the work to remain gracious is all hidden. Just beneath the surface, the swan paddles along underwater as fast and powerfully as possible.

    Similarly, treating everyone as if they were your boss can keep you on your toes as you weigh loyalties, balance egos and keep priorities straight.

    But in a world where everything is instantly searchable and archived until the cows come home (or the swans hybridize themselves out of existence due to global warming), a little extra work can keep you afloat that much longer. Just ask the celebrities and CEOs who've had to hire extra PR flaks because their bad tips are archived on a disgruntled waiter's blog.

    The extra effort to make like a swan decreases the odds that anyone will flip you the bird.

    If you always give your doorman a kind greeting and a tip, whose taxi will be hailed first on a rainy day? If the janitor or assistant is new in town and you gather up your favorite take-out menus for him or her, whose area will be supervised with extra care? Who can pick up a suit after closing time, you or the customer who doesn't know your dry cleaner's dogs' names?

    Sure, it means taking time to build relationships, but in each of these situations, the investment pays off. Plus, it's fun.

    And it's spring, so if Voltaire will forgive her, Miss Conduct's eyes are on cultivating her garden. Because we reap what we sow, the first rule prepares the mental ground for the second -- a reseeding -- the next principle in trickle-down sociability.

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    Rule Two

    Your boss is perfect in every way.

    Unlike a love interest, to whom we often say, "I love you, you're perfect -- now, change!" we rarely try to change the boss. (Perhaps that's because Americans have raised boss-bashing to a high art and consider them incapable of growth, but that's another topic.) However, we can butter up the boss, so let's just skip serving him up with tea and jam, shall we?

    This rule is a reseeding of our mental fields. It's a radical rethink. Having a perfect boss puts the onus on you to make the situation work. It's a bit of mental hygiene that keeps you from feeling victimized.

    Thinking of every "boss" as perfect -- or your accountant, your shoe shiner -- empowers you to finesse the situation or the relationship to meet your goals, even when the shoe repairman just shellacked your suede pumps into patent leather.

    Therefore, treat everyone well. Offer thanks and appreciation. If there's a problem, assume it's an oversight, not a conspiracy.

    Slow down, calm down, and take notes. Everyone has something to teach you.

    Rule Three

    Miss Conduct recommends that you always be entertaining, or at least flattering. Leading psychologists put it another way: Connect, then direct. This concept builds on Rule One -- we try not only to treat people with kindness but to engage them.

    If you want the new intern to stuff your envelopes, you have to enlist him in your mission -- or keep him so busy laughing that he doesn't notice how hard he's working. If you're not a natural comic talent, that means motivating the resource to apply his special abilities to the project in specific ways. Starting with a direct, meaningful compliment softens the whole operation.

    Being funny or flattering won't change the structure of who's on top. It's like asking a cabbie to take you across midtown Manhattan for a key

    business lunch that starts in seven minutes.

    You might not be in the driver's seat, but you can be in the seat of power. If you bark out your directions, it might make you feel in control, but you're not really accomplishing anything. If you get the driver in on your plan, though, that makes him feel connected so that he brings his talents and knowledge to bear and gets you there on time.

    Everyone wants to be a part of something larger than themselves; employ your resources so that whomever you're working with gives his or her best. And if you make people laugh, they'll be on your side from the start.

    Grace isn't just a way of getting around, it's a way of life.

    On a day-to-day basis, our thoughts are like seeds. Tending them now can mean keeping our eyes on a forest of good things rather than narrowing our focus to deal with a few sick specimens.

    These three simple rules will pay off in terms of ease and endorphins, reinforcing a positive attitude that lets you keep working toward your goals.

    Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and