The night she neglected to attend a black tie dinner given in her honor because she had written down the wrong date. The day she prepared a five-course meal for a Mormon Cabinet member who could not touch the food because every dish contained alcohol. The time she greeted a top Washington official and forgot his name.
“I've learned from my mistakes,” said Miss Baldrige in an interview at her Park Avenue apartment.
She wants others to do as well. This week marks the appearance of “Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to Executive Manners,” published by Rawson Associates. It is a book of rules and tips culled from the former White House social secretary's experiences and observations. Based on the theory that good manners are the cornerstone of a successful company, the book is geared toward helping individuals attain poise and confidence within the workplace and outside it.
As a desk-top compendium of social savvy, it covers the basics - how to make an introduction, how to become a good conversationalist, how to be a good host or guest. Several chapters are devoted to quirky matters, such as “Divorce Etiquette in the Office” and “Using Nicknames in the Workplace.”
But the book's meat and potatoes stem from classic corporate protocol - conducting annual meetings, evaluating subordinates, entertaining out-of-town clients and making public appearances.
Say, for example, a high-powered executive is invited to a gala fund-raising benefit and asked to sit on the dais, beside the guest of honor. What if the day before the gala, he is called out of town unexpectedly to attend an important sales meeting? Should he send an assistant to take his place at the benefit?
Absolutely not, Miss Baldrige advises. Never send a substitute. It is the host's responsibility to find another guest or to eliminate the place setting. And never fail to let the host know you will not be coming - the empty seat “will look like a front tooth missing in someone's smile.”
Doing the “correct” thing in this and other touchy situations is not only polite, Miss Baldrige says - it is good business. “Good manners are cost-effective,” she maintains. “They play a major role in helping to generate sales and profits.”
Miss Baldrige is eminently qualified to hold forth on acquiring social savvy. For 37 years, she has been polishing the manners of diplomats, corporate big-wigs and budding entrepreneurs. A Vassar alumna, she served as an aide to the United States Ambassador at the American Embassies in Paris and Rome and as Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary in the White House. Since forming her own public relations and marketing company three years ago, she has served as a consultant to 60 companies, including Hill & Knowlton, Christie's and Mark Cross.
“I've watched the little fish swimming around the big fish. I've seen the politicking that goes on,” she said. “I've found that people who are well-mannered and supportive of others tend to rise to the top.”
There is another school of thought, however, that dictates that niceties are extraneous in the competitive world of big business. Company officials who scale the corporate ladder, these doubters say, are often ill-mannered and occasionally downright rude.
To which the doyenne of the social graces responds: “For every rude executive who makes it to the top there are nine successful executives with good manners.” Following are exerpts from the book.
Riding to the Top on Good Manners
Going Through Doors Our grandparents were taught that ladies should always walk through the door first. Not so in today's workplace. Common sense and efficiency dictate that whoever arrives at the door first, male or female, should hold it open for the others directly behind and keep it open until all have passed through. However, younger executives should still defer to very senior ones - by managing to get to the door fast, ahead of the others, to hold it open. And the executive the outside people have come to see should act as their host, including opening doors for them and motioning them to walk ahead.
Business and Small Talk
The more at ease you become in conversation, the better at small talk you become. It's a good way to survive common sticky social situations like being seated at dinner between two people whom you have never met, don't care about ever meeting again, and have absolutely nothing in common with except that you happen to work in the same company or industry as one of them.
The following are examples of topics suited to small talk: Landscape gardening, passing the bar exams, Princess Diana, Luciano Pavarotti, the use of hypnotism to stop smoking, robots doing housework, and how to write an on-target resume.
The best advice one can give on screening calls is not to do it. When your secretary asks a caller, ''May I ask what this call is about?'' there is always disappointment and often hostility on the other end of the line. The caller feels as though he is deemed inadequate, unimportant, and unworthy of speaking directly to the person seated in splendor behind his executive desk. Jacket Etiquette
* A double-breasted jacket on a man or woman is meant to be left buttoned and not hang open.
* A man who often works without his jacket in an office should never wear short-sleeved shirts.
* If you are working without your jacket in the office and the big boss comes in, put on your jacket and keep it on for as long as he or she is present.
Designing the Business Card
The standard size of a business card is 3 1/2'' x 2'' or variations thereof. Cards may be made in unusual shapes to represent certain types of businesses. (I have seen clever cards in the shape of a hamburger, automobile, French poodle and typewriter.) If you have cards of this nature made for you, remember that what you gain in cleverness, you may lose in one respect: People cannot easily put an odd-shaped card in their wallets or card cases.
Going for Coffee
The “going for coffee syndrome” has been blown out of all proportion.
In my opinion, a secretary should use her precious energy to improve her position with the company in a constructive manner, not waste it fighting requests to serve coffee or tea. However, the boss should go fetch the coffee for everyone on the office staff from time to time, too, just to show that he or she shares responsibility for the comfort as well as the work of the staff. Congratulating Those You Know Well . . .Great news! You are climbing the ladder of success so fast that I'm dizzy looking up and trying to keep you in view. We're all celebrating for you. Congratulating Those You Don't Know Well . . .Your new position is certainly a recognition of your contributions to this company during the past few years. No one is more deserving of the promotion and the added responsibilities it brings. We all wish you great luck.
Elsa Maxwell, the late and internationally famous party-giver, once stated that ''the most certain route to chaos at a dinner party is not having place cards telling everyone where to go.''
A place card, either flat or folded, sits on top of the napkin, on the tablecloth, propped against a glass, or placed above the plate at the place setting.
Invitation to a Single Person
Some single people think it is perfectly all right to show up at a cocktail party with a date (or even with members of their family). If the place where the party is being given is small, the host may have had to pare down his or her guest list carefully. Your showing up with someone who was not invited can cause hostility in your beleaguered host's mind. Care of an Out-of-Town V.I.P. Here are some things to remember:
He (or she) should be met at the airport by someone of sufficiently high rank, such as a company vice-president.
The guest should be provided with a complete schedule of events for his stay.
The V.I.P. should be given a carefully annotated guest list for every meeting and every business and social event, so that the V.I.P. will be well-briefed on the cast of characters.
When Someone Is Put Down
If you hear a colleague being criticized unfairly - even in cocktail party chitchat -speak up. Defend the victim calmly, not aggressively; ''I don't think that's fair. I know him well and work with him every day. That's not the way I see him.'' Or, ''I really don't think you're giving the whole picture.'' Or, ''Why don't you make those accusations to his face, instead of behind his back?''— By Beth Sherman, New York Times, Oct. 13, 1985