Editor’s note: William Dunk is an international business consultant and head of William Dunk Partners, which is based in Chapel Hill. For more, see www.globalprovince.com We always come upon Ms. Letitia Baldrige when she is just bouncing back from a bad patch that would have proven fatal to an ordinary mortal. Some twenty years ago we lunched together, through the good offices of her brother Malcolm, at a pretty French restaurant in the East 20s and chatted about most everything under the sun. Along the way, casually, she mentioned that she had just beaten back the Big C … cancer.

A month ago, motivated by some vague presentiment, we called to check on her at her office in Washington. Lo and behold, she was just home from the hospital after a serious bout of surgery, bouncing back yet all over again. And, sure enough, she was to be on the road a few days later to lecture some company’s employees in New Jersey on the importance and fundamentals of good etiquette.

Her several “ups” and “downs” in life reminded her, she said, of a childhood toy she long cherished: the weeble. You could try to knock it over, but it was weighted in such a way that it would immediately right itself. The slogan was: “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.”

At that, we said to her “You make us recall John Wayne’s movie True Grit.” We made an appointment to talk more with her about this “the show-must-go-on” spirit upon her return from the Garden State.

Nobody showed

We’ve talked since. She allows that her life has been fraught with crises, largely of her own making. So she’s had no choice but to right herself when all seems lost.

Once, for instance, she was set to re-launch the newly refurbished King Cole bar at the St. Regis Hotel, a stylish watering hole with a wonderful Maxwell Parrish mural. The proprietors were converting it to a restaurant. The invitations to the sendoff party were perfect, except that they did not clearly state the date of the affair. What a surprise party! Quelle surprise! Nobody showed. She had to apologize profusely to the owners and to promise to make up for her faux pas. And she did, turning a lemon into lemonade. Her follow-on activities clearly rang the cash register for Sheraton’s management.

High Priestess of Manners

That she has survived and flourished stems from such true grit, her boundless good cheer, and her religious devotion to the cause of civility. She has become, we think, the high priestess of good manners, and her website (www.letitia.com ) is populated with a string of books she has written about the “whys” and “wherefores” of gentility. She believes, incidentally, that good manners are only communication devices by which kind people express their care for others. She implies that kindness itself is the very glue that holds together civilized society.

It is her relentlessness about manners, even more than her resilience amidst crisis, that really shows her true grit. Even if civility is the lifeblood of diplomacy, of strategic alliances (which are the sine qua non of global business), and of marriage, rudeness has become the more common currency in modern life. It’s not just that barbarians are pressing at our gates, but that nobody on the inside knows how to say , “Please, Thank you, Your welcome, May I help you, ” etc. Bravely, she insists that minimum standards and a little kindness would make things a great deal easier for all of us, and she fights the good fight to get us to raise our sights.

The service paradox

Bad manners have produced gridlock in government and have fanned the countless, little wars that now dot the globe. Neither the Clinton nor Bush Administrations have comported themselves in the modest and forthright ways that compel the admiration of reasonable people around the world. For Americans, in addition, the consequences of crudeness have even dampened our ability to make a living.

In one way or another, business chieftains discovered late in the 90s that “services” are the difference between single and double-digit growth. That is, if you just make a product, you will barely grow these days. So services have become hugely more important to IBM than mainframe computers, because that’s where the money is.
Civility is 70 percent of service. But little of it is forthcoming.

Manners have most atrophied just as they have become most important. If there were ever a strategic paradox, this is it. Just when service has become the critical value-added in our economy, corporate technocrats have taken true service off the table. In fact, it’s almost a shock now when someone at a major institution or company is truly polite. Often enough, one never even speaks to a responsive human being during telephonic corporate transactions, and is shuttled instead into unwieldy interactive phone systems. In some businesses, most notably investment banking, the too clever practitioners even brag about their arrogance and unseemly behavior, some of which has been recounted in books dealing with the lows of high finance.

From Don to Donnybrook

Fifty years ago, in the morning, America listened to Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club on ABC radio, a talk and entertainment show beamed out of the old Allerton Hotel in Chicago. It began: “Good morning, Breakfast Clubbers.” It ended: “So long, and be good to yourself.” This was happiness, cheer, and kindness.

Today, post 2000, we turn on the TV and turn in desperation to Don Imus. There is nothing, nothing good on the tube even with 40 or so channels, and the Imus offers the least worst of the worst. Here labored discussions of uninteresting neurosis block out the charming playfulness that ran through the old-time early bird shows.

Occasionally the program is punctuated by interviews with people of significance and substance, but generally the fare is boring and boorish. Even Mr. Imus, sometimes rising above the morass, seems a trifle embarrassed by the enervating triviality of it all. Most of the palaver comes as if from fleas who have laid their eggs in our Rice Krispies.

Such talk TV and talk radio are rather profitable, since they cost so little to produce. Likewise, Time Inc. manages to stay afloat because of People magazine, also a low-cost appeal to the mindless many. But broadcasters and publishers of this dark, gritty material have tarnished their reputation and brand, driving away large segments of their potential audience, slowly losing their bond with listener-land. These are forums where all fall down and never get up. They sap the public spirit and the nation’s sense of purpose. When again, will they be good to us, trying to inspire us to be good to ourselves? They need a few lessons from Ms. Baldrige, or Don McNeil.