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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rethinking Conventional Wisdom

"One of the laws of our household growing up was to never eat fish and drink milk at the same time," my friend confessed, while eating fish and not drinking milk.  She shook her head as she puzzled over whethere there was any harm in that culinary combination.

 I knew what she was feeling:  we grow up with what we consider conventional wisdom, and then later in life, we wonder if it was ever true, or if its purpose was outgrown.

Most of us live with that tension daily and often in the workplace.

We have a set of ideas that we think are true: 

Don't make personal phone calls at work.

Don't surf the web on company time.

Don't discuss your personal life with coworkers.  While companies claim to be "like a family,"  unless you are in the Mafia, they aren't, really.

Don't put anything in an e-mail you don't want the boss to know because he/she has a right to read your emails.  (Yes, rumor has it that there are people at some companies whose job it is to run routine screens on search strings inside employee e-mails to find out who's up to no good.)

Those make a kind of head-nodding sense to us.

But other mandates passed along in the same way that we ask "Where's a good place to have lunch?" don't always mesh with our sense of conventional wisdom.

Sometimes I still think e-mails are too casual for certain types of tasks.

I don't think saying you're sorry means that you're weak.

And I don't think you can be too courteous in an age when speed drives us, and speed is often at war with the pace of courtesy.

One of the ways that many people underestimate why being polite matters is that they don't know how they sound on the telephone, one of the chief ways that we communicate at work.

Often people forget to identify themselves, mistakenly believing that their voice will be immediately recognized.

They call and don't ask if they are calling at a convenient time.

They speak too fast or too slowly, and sometimes sneeze into the receiver.

If you haven't heard how you sound on the telephone in a while, listen to your telephone message on your voice mail.  Has it been a while since you changed that message?

If you can't remember when, it's time to change it.   There's no conventional wisdom to back me up on this, but I know that other people have been calling you and leaving you messages. They may even parrot your message as they hear it, while yawning.  They are most likely tired of the same old message which imparts the idea that you are growing older and more tired too.  Doesn't it?

Sometimes the heart of courtesy is to rethink how you sound to others, and if the ways that you leave behind a message of yourself sound tired, it's time to change the message.

Courtesy existing in an age of speed isn't the same unappetizing combination as fish with a glass of milk, but it your first response to this unction was that you don't have time to change your phone message right now, then most likely, you really, really need to change it.

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