I had the privilege of growing up in a family and a country where good manners really matter. I now live in a city and work in an industry where you can’t take them for granted. And I’ve learnt a few things.
First and foremost: good manners are by no means essential. The world still turns without them. But the way you handle yourself does count.
Here’s the bottom line: like attracts like.
If you feel like you always end up working on projects with unreliable, rude and disrespectful people, I have news for you: it might be because you’re as unreliable, rude and disrespectful.
We tend to build working relationships with people who are like us. Similar level of experience, more or less. Similar tastes, more or less. And, more or less, a similar way of treating the people around them.
So if you want to work in high-stress, high-conflict environments where everyone has their back up because everyone treats each other like shit, be my guest. Some people genuinely believe being an asshole is the only way to get ahead in the creative industries. And I respect their right to believe whatever they like.
But if you’d rather work in supportive, relaxed and trusting environments where everyone treats each other so well that you can concentrate 100% on creating something awesome together, that’s an option too. Perhaps you’re also the kind of person who believes that people do their best work when they feel happy, valued and supported.
If so, congratulations! I’ve distilled all of my British charm, politeness, charisma into six easy ways you can show the world you’re one well-mannered motherfucker.
1. Show Other People You Value Them
This is Golden Rule #1 – Care about other people – meets Golden Rule #2 – We are what we do, not what we say.
Show people that you care. It’s that simple. Open email replies with ‘It’s great to hear from you’. And mean it. Close them with ‘All the best with your project’. Tell people that what they’re thinking and what they’re working on is interesting to you. Maybe even tell them why. Even if it’s someone you don’t know well.
Help people out when you can. Even if they don’t ask for it directly. You don’t have to volunteer twenty hours of your time every week. Sometimes the little things are the best: lending an ear when someone asks for advice, offering to introduce someone to someone who might be useful to them, just throwing some love and encouragement their way. You’d be surprised the impact the smallest act of kindness can have on someone else.
Not only is valuing other people a good thing to do full stop, the more you do it to other people the more you’ll find other people do it to you.
2. Email Etiquette
For fuck’s sake: get back to people. Whenever possible.
If it’s a fanmail account and you receive a thousand emails a day, that’s different. If it’s an email from a random person who copied your email from some blog you left it on in 1998, that’s different.
But if it’s someone emailing you who’s vaguely on a similar professional level as you, reply. Even if it’s to say ‘Sorry, can’t help’. Even if it’s to say ‘Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. This month has been really crazy.’ Give people the courtesy of letting them know. You don’t know how your reply can help them move on with whatever they’re trying to do.
Yes, sending email is so easy that we’re bombarded with much more inane correspondence than we used to be. But if you can, reply. If HRH Elizabeth II can answer 98% of the letters she receives, so can you. Plus, you don’t know who you’ll be waiting on a reply from some other time.
3. Don’t Bother People Unnecessarily
Talk is cheap. Email, texts and Facebook messages are even cheaper.
But time is valuable. Don’t waste other people’s if there’s another way you could just as easily find out what you need. (You probably remember the site Let Me Google That For You.)
And while we’re on it: there’s no need to say what you can say in ten words – written or spoken – in three hundred instead. Professionals are busy people. Busy people love people who get to the point.
4. Say No Gracefully
You are wholly, completely and unadulteratedly within your rights to say no to anything. Even the best opportunity on the planet. It’s your life. Make whatever sensible, stupid, totally random choices you like.
But it’s also possible to say ‘No’ in a way that doesn’t also say ‘Fuck You’. Though let’s acknowledge there will be times you want to say both at once, mostly they’re worth keeping separate. Mostly you’ll be saying no out of a lack of compatibility, not a deeply held dislike for a person. (I assume.)
All it takes is a ‘Thanks for thinking of me. The opportunity sounds great but I don’t think I can right now.’ You can even say briefly why if you like: that kind of openness is a great way to show you value you someone – in a way, you’re reassuring them your decision is nothing to do with them – and a great way to keep a good relationship for the future.
Sometimes that openness can create opportunities further down the line too. If you say ‘We don’t really do that kind of gig. We’re more into whatever’ or even ‘We’re not performing at the moment because we’re busy working on our album’ you might find those same people get in touch when a better-fit opportunity comes along.
Once again, it’s not about what you say, it’s how much you care. It’s OK to say no. It’s OK not to give people what they’re asking for. But if you acknowledge that and say no gracefully you’re in a whole different league.
5. Be Grateful
Can’t say it enough. If someone takes the time to help you out, speak to you personally after a gig, or otherwise do something particularly meaningful for you, let them know you’re grateful. Don’t treat the people who support you like you don’t care.
Maybe you have one fan that’s always at your gigs and is a bit of a creeper. OK, don’t become his (or her) best friend. Don’t invite him (or her) over for dinner. Don’t chat with him (or her) for hours. But whatever tiny, seemingly inconsequential ways you can show you care, it all matters in the long run.
No one asked you to be an artist. If you’re lucky enough to have a decent following and even make a living just from your work, be grateful to all the people who make that happen.
6. Value People as People
Doesn’t matter if you’re speaking with the boss. Doesn’t matter if you’re speaking with the intern. Doesn’t matter if you’re speaking with the janitor.
We’re all people. We all have different levels of responsibility. We all have different areas of expertise. We all are on our own personal journey, blah, blah, blah. But what we have in common is that we’re all people.
Treating all other people respectfully is one of the most important things you can do. Treating people well only because they’re higher up the chain than you is not cool. For starters, you don’t know how the tables might turn in future.
Though let’s be clear: if you’re only being nice to other people on the off-chance that one day they might be your boss you’re still an asshole. Decent people treat other people decently because it’s a decent thing to do. And decent people are much more rewarding to be around full stop. That’s supposed to be all the motivation you need.
That’s all well and good you’ll tell me. But what about being too nice?
You know what I mean? Those people who just seem to say yes to everything and always seem to go above and beyond what’s expected, but in a slightly cringeworthy way
Here’s the thing – it’s not being too nice that’s the problem. The problem is when people do too nice because they believe – consciously or otherwise – being nice is all you need to get ahead. That if you’re really nice to the right people, somehow the right doors will just magically open.
Being nice because you expect others to be give you something in return is the leading cause of people being described as ‘too nice’. But it’s not effective. In fact it’s usually self-defeating, because any behavior that’s done to get a certain response from someone else is self-defeating. It’s manipulative. No matter how well intentioned, and genuine on the surface, it’s an attempt to coddle someone into giving you what you want. And people see through that.
Good manners are supposed to be their own reward. If you do them because you truly and independently believe in them, nobody is going to call you too nice.
And, incidentally, there’s no reason you can’t have good manners and stand up for yourself when you need to. In fact, that’s kind of the art of living. The best people I know say please and thank you, and hold doors open for other people, but that doesn’t mean they’re afraid to tell someone to go screw themselves when it’s fully necessary. Even the Royal Family swear when they need to. I heard that from Stephen Fry so it must be true.
You’ll need a thick skin if you want to get ahead as an artist. But if you want a fulfilling and rewarding life, having a soft heart will help a lot too.