Read CHAPTER I of The Book of Business Etiquette , free online book, by Nella Henney, on


The business man is the national hero of America, as native to the soil and as typical of the country as baseball or Broadway or big advertising. He is an interesting figure, picturesque and not unlovable, not so dashing perhaps as a knight in armor or a soldier in uniform, but he is not without the noble (and ignoble) qualities which have characterized the tribe of man since the world began. America, in common with other countries, has had distinguished statesmen and soldiers, authors and artists and they have not all gone to their graves unhonored and unsung but the hero story which belongs to her and to no one else is the story of the business man.

Nearly always it has had its beginning in humble surroundings, with a little boy born in a log cabin in the woods, in a wretched shanty at the edge of a field, in a crowded tenement section or in the slums of a foreign city, who studied and worked by daylight and firelight while he made his living blacking boots or selling papers until he found the trail by which he could climb to what we are pleased to call success. Measured by the standards of Greece and Rome or the Middle Ages, when practically the only form of achievement worth mentioning was fighting to kill, his career has not been a romantic one. It has had to do not with dragons and banners and trumpets, but with stockyards and oil fields, with railroads, sewer systems, heat, light, and water plants, telephones, cotton, corn, ten-cent stores and we might as well make a clean breast of it chewing gum.

We have no desire to crown the business man with a halo, though judging from their magazines and from the stories which they write of their own lives, they are almost without spot or blemish. Most of them seem not even to have had faults to overcome. They were born perfect. Now the truth is that the methods of accomplishment which the American business man has used have not always been above reproach and still are not. At the same time it would not be hard to prove that he and here we are speaking of the average with all his faults and failings (and they are many), with all his virtues (and he is not without them), is superior in character to the business men of other times in other countries. This without boasting. It would be a great pity if he were not.

Without trying to settle the question as to whether he is good or bad (and he really can be pigeon-holed no better than any one else) we have to accept this: He is the biggest factor in the American commonwealth to-day. It follows then, naturally, that what he thinks and feels will color and probably dominate the ideas and the ideals of the rest of the country. Numbers of our magazines and they are as good an index as we have to the feeling of the general public are given over completely to the service or the entertainment of business men (the T. B. M.) and an astonishing amount of space is devoted to them in most of the others.

It may be, and as a matter of fact constantly is, debated whether all this is good for the country or not. We shall not go into that. It has certainly been good for business, and in considering the men who have developed our industries we have to take them, and maybe it is just as well, as they are and not as we think they ought to be.

There was a time when the farmer was the principal citizen. And the politician ingratiated himself with the people by declaring that he too had split rails and followed the plow, had harvested grain and had suffered from wet spells and dry spells, low prices, dull seasons, hunger and hardship. This is still a pretty sure way to win out, but there are others. If he can refer feelingly to the days when he worked and sweated in a coal mine, in a printing shop, a cotton, wool, or silk mill, steel or motor plant, he can hold his own with the ex-farmer’s boy. We have become a nation of business men. Even the “dirt” farmer has become a business man he has learned that he not only has to produce, he must find a market for his product.

In comparing the business man of the present with the business man of the past we must remember that he is living in a more difficult world. Life was comparatively simple when men dressed in skins and ate roots and had their homes in scattered caves. They felt no need for a code of conduct because they felt no need for one another. They depended not on humanity but on nature, and perhaps human brotherhood would never have come to have a meaning if nature had not proved treacherous. She gave them berries and bananas, sunshine and soft breezes, but she gave them trouble also in the shape of wild beasts, and savages, terrible droughts, winds, and floods. In order to fight against these enemies, strength was necessary, and when primitive men discovered that two were worth twice as much as one they began to join forces. This was the beginning of civilization and of politeness. It rose out of the oldest instinct in the world self-preservation.

When men first organized into groups the units were small, a mere handful of people under a chief, but gradually they became larger and larger until the nations of to-day have grown into a sort of world community composed of separate countries, each one supreme in its own domain, but at the same time bound to the others by economic ties stronger than sentimental or political ones could ever be. People are now more dependent on one another than they have ever been before, and the need for confidence is greater. We cannot depend upon one another unless we can trust one another.

The American community is in many respects the most complex the world has ever seen, and the hardest to manage. In other countries the manners have been the natural result of the national development. The strong who had risen to the top in the struggle for existence formed themselves into a group. The weak who stayed at the bottom fell into another, and the bulk of the populace, which, then as now, came somewhere in between, fell into a third or was divided according to standards of its own. Custom solidified the groups into classes which became so strengthened by years of usage that even when formal distinctions were broken down the barriers were still too solid for a man who was born into a certain group to climb very easily into the one above him. Custom also dictated what was expected of the several classes. Each must be gracious to those below and deferential to those above. The king, because he was king, must be regal. The nobility must, noblesse oblige, be magnificent, and as for the rest of the people, it did not matter much so long as they worked hard and stayed quiet. There were upheavals, of course, and now and then a slave with a braver heart and a stouter spirit than his companions incited them to rebellion. His head was chopped off for his pains and he was promptly forgotten. The majority of the people for thousands of years honestly believed that this was the only orderly basis upon which society could be organized.

Nebulous ideas of a brotherhood, in which each man was to have an equal chance with every other, burned brightly for a little while in various parts of the world at different times, and flickered out. They broke forth with the fury of an explosion in France during the Revolution and in Russia during the Red Terror. They have smoldered quietly in some places and had just begun to break through with a steady, even flame. But America struck the match and gathered the wood to start her own fire. She is the first country in the world which was founded especially to promote individual freedom and the brotherhood of mankind. She had, to change the figure slightly, a blue-print to start with and she has been building ever since.

Her material came from the eastern hemisphere. The nations there at the time when the United States was settled were at different stages of their development. Some were vigorous with youth, some were in the height of their glory, and some were dying because the descendants of the men who had made them great were futile and incapable. These nations were different in race and religion, in thought, language, traditions, and temperament. When they were not quarreling with each other, they were busy with domestic squabbles. They had kept this up for centuries and were at it when the settlers landed at Jamestown and later when the Mayflower came to Plymouth Rock. Yet, with a cheerful disregard of the past and an almost sublime hope in the future they expected to live happily ever after they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Needless to add, they did not.

Accident of place cannot change a man’s color (though it may bleach it a shade lighter or tan it a shade darker), nor his religion nor any of the other racial and inherent qualities which are the result of slow centuries of development. And the same elements which made men fight in the old countries set them against each other in the new. Most of the antagonisms were and are the result of prejudices, foolish narrow prejudices, which, nevertheless, must be beaten down before we can expect genuine courtesy.

Further complications arose, and are still arising, from the fact that we did not all get here at the same time. Those who came first have inevitably and almost unconsciously formulated their own system of manners. Wherever there is community life and a certain amount of leisure there is a standard of cultivated behavior. And America, young as she is, has already accumulated traditions of her own.

It is beyond doubt that the men who came over in the early days were, as a rule, better timber than the ones who come now. They came to live and die, if necessary, for a religious or a political principle, for adventure, or like the debtors in Oglethorpe’s colony in Georgia, to wipe clean the slate of the past and begin life again. To-day they come to make money or because they think they will find life easier here than it was where they were. And one of the chief reasons for the discontent and unrest (and, incidentally, rudeness) which prevails among them is that they find it hard. We are speaking in general terms. There are glorious exceptions.

The sturdy virtues of the pioneers did not include politeness. They never do. So long as there is an animal fear of existence man cannot think of minor elegances. He cannot live by bread alone, but he cannot live at all without it. Bread must come first. And the Pilgrim Father was too busy learning how to wring a living from the forbidding rocks of New England with one hand while he fought off the Indians with the other to give much time to tea parties and luncheons. Nowhere in America except in the South, where the leisurely life of the plantations gave opportunity for it, was any great attention paid to formal courtesy. But everywhere, as soon as the country had been tamed and prosperity began to peep over the horizon, the pioneers began to grow polite. They had time for it.

What we must remember and this is a reason, not an excuse, for bad manners is that these new people coming into the country, the present-day immigrants, are pioneers, and that the life is not an easy one whether it is lived among a wilderness of trees and beasts in a forest or a wilderness of men and buildings in a city. The average American brings a good many charges against the foreigner some of them justified, for much of the “back-wash” of Europe and Asia has drifted into our harbor but he must remember this: Whatever his opinion of the immigrant may be the fault is ours he came into this country under the sanction of our laws. And he is entitled to fair and courteous treatment from every citizen who lives under the folds of the American flag.

The heterogeneous mixture which makes up our population is a serious obstacle (but not an insuperable one) in the way of courtesy, but there is another even greater. The first is America’s problem. The second belongs to the world.

Material progress has raced so far ahead of mental and spiritual progress that the world itself is a good many years in advance of the people who are living in it. Our statesmen ride to Washington in automobiles and sleeping cars, but they are not vastly preferable to those who went there in stagecoaches and on horseback. In other words, there has been considerably more improvement in the vehicles which fill our highways than there has been in the people who ride in them.

The average man who is, when all is said and done, the most important person in the state has stood still while the currents of science and invention have swept past him. He has watched the work of the world pass into the keeping of machines, shining miracles of steel and electricity, and has forgot himself in worshipping them. Now he is beginning to realize that it is much easier to make a perfect machine than it is to find a perfect man to put behind it, and that man himself, even at his worst (and that is pretty bad) is worth more than anything else in the scheme of created things.

This tremendous change in environment resulting from the overwhelming domination of machinery has brought about a corresponding change in manners. For manners consist, in the main, of adapting oneself to one’s surroundings. And the story of courtesy is the story of evolution.

It is interesting to run some of our conventions back to their origin. Nearly every one of them grew out of a practical desire for lessening friction or making life pleasanter. The first gesture of courtesy was, no doubt, some form of greeting by which one man could know another as a friend and not an enemy. They carried weapons then as habitually as they carry watches to-day and used them as frequently, so that when a man approached his neighbor to talk about the prospects of the sugar or berry crop he held out his right hand, which was the weapon hand, as a sign of peace. This eventually became the handshake. Raising one’s hat is a relic of the days of chivalry when knights wore helmets which they removed when they came into the house, both because they were more comfortable without them and because it showed their respect for the ladies, whom it was their duty to serve. And nearly every other ceremony which has lasted was based on common sense. “Etiquette,” as Dr. Brown has said, “with all its littlenesses and niceties, is founded upon a central idea of right and wrong.”

The word “courtesy” itself did not come into the language until late (etiquette came even later) and then it was used to describe the polite practices at court. It was wholly divorced from any idea of character, and the most fastidious gentlemen were sometimes the most complete scoundrels. Even the authors of books of etiquette were men of great superficial elegance whose moral standards were scandalously low. One of them, an Italian, was banished from court for having published an indecent poem and wrote his treatise on polite behavior while he was living in enforced retirement in his villa outside the city. It was translated for the edification of the young men of England and France and served as a standard for several generations. Another, an Englishman, spent the later years of his life writing letters to his illegitimate son, telling him exactly how to conduct himself in the courtly (and more or less corrupt) circles to which his noble rank entitled him. The letters were bound into a fat, dreary volume which still sits on the dust-covered shelves of many a library, and the name of the author has become a synonym for exquisite manners. Influential as he was in his own time, however, neither he nor any of the others of the early arbiters of elegance could set himself up as a dictator of what is polite to American men, of no matter what class, and get by with it. Not very far by, at any rate.

It is impossible now to separate courtesy and character. Politeness is a fundamental, not a superficial, thing. It is the golden rule translated into terms of conduct. It is not a white-wash which, if laid on thick enough, will cover every defect. It is a clear varnish which shows the texture and grain of the wood beneath. In the ideal democracy the ideal citizen is the man who is not only incapable of doing an ungallant or an ungracious thing, but is equally incapable of doing an unmanly one. There is no use lamenting the spacious days of long ago. Wishing for them will not bring them back. Our problem is to put the principles of courtesy into practice even in this hurried and hectic Twentieth Century of ours. And since the business man is in numbers, and perhaps in power also, the most consequential person in the country, it is of most importance that he should have a high standard of behavior, a high standard of civility, which includes not only courtesy but everything which has to do with good citizenship.

We have no desire for candy-box courtesy. It should be made of sterner stuff. Nor do we care for the sort which made the polite Frenchman say, “Excusez-moi” when he stabbed his adversary. We can scarcely hope just yet to attain to the magnificent calm which enabled Marie Antoinette to say, “I’m sorry. I did not do it on purpose,” when she stepped on the foot of her executioner as they stood together on the scaffold, or Lord Chesterfield, gentleman to the very end, to say, “Give Dayrolles a chair” when his physician came into the room in which he lay dying. But we do want something that will enable us to live together in the world with a minimum degree of friction.

The best of us get on one another’s nerves, even under ordinary conditions, and it takes infinite pains and self-control to get through a trying day in a busy office without striking sparks somewhere. If there is a secret of success, and some of the advertisements seem trying to persuade us that it is all secret, it is the ability to work efficiently and pleasantly with other people. The business man never works alone. He is caught in the clutches of civilization and there is no escape. He is like a man climbing a mountain tied to a lot of other men climbing the same mountain. What each one does affects all the others.

We do not want our people to devote themselves entirely to the art of being agreeable. If we could conceive of a world where everybody was perfectly polite and smiling all the time we should hardly like to live in it. It is human nature not to like perfection, and most of us, if brought face to face with that model of behavior, Mr. Turveydrop, who spent his life serving as a pattern of deportment, would sympathize with the delightful old lady who looked at him in the full flower of his glory and cried viciously (but under her breath) “I could bite you!”

When Pope Benedict XI sent a messenger to Giotto for a sample of his work the great artist drew a perfect circle with one sweep of his arm and gave it to the boy. Before his death Giotto executed many marvelous works of art, not one of them perfect, not even the magnificent bell tower at Florence, but all of them infinitely greater than the circle. It is better, whether one is working with bricks or souls, to build nobly than to build perfectly.