Miss Manners: Fake friendliness no substitute for professionalism

MONDAY, JAN. 10, 2011

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Has anyone else noticed the intrusive questions being asked by clerks or salespeople under the guise of friendliness? In stores or banks now I am asked: “How is your day going so far?” When I have had a difficult day, I wonder, does the questioner really want to know, especially if I’m dealing with some difficult issues? Should I tell them the details just so they will learn that it is an inappropriate question?

Last night at the bank I was asked, “What are your plans for the evening?”

Anything I could say to indicate my displeasure with the nosy question (e.g., “None of your business”) would be rude, and I am sure that these individuals are being told to do this by their managers, so I do not want to take it out on them. (A friend suggested I say, “I’m going to bury my husband.”)

I now yearn for the days when I got away with the simple phrase “Have a nice day!” (which, mercifully, required little or no response on my part). How would you advise discouraging this intrusiveness?

GENTLE READER: Whoever came up with the idea of substituting pseudo-friendliness for cheerful professionalism in commerce has a lot to answer for. The phrases Miss Manners likes to hear are not inquiries into her habits and psyche, but a simple greeting and “May I help you?”

Fortunately, unanswerable questions need not be answered. Acknowledged, out of common decency, but not answered. Any pleasantry will do – “Good afternoon” for example – before you get down to business by asking “Do you carry canary cages?” or whatever it was that you took you there. It probably wasn’t the hope of making friends.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I teach math to struggling students at an elementary school. Yesterday, our school principal decided to hold his own tutoring session for the fifth graders. Unfortunately, he taught them an incorrect method for comparing fractions. This came to my attention later that same day when the students told me what they learned. They got every math problem I gave them wrong because they were using the principal’s method to compare fractions. I know his method was incorrect because I checked the answers in the answer book and arrived at the same answers on my own.

I’m wondering, how can I tell the students that what the principal taught them was incorrect, and how should I approach the principal to inform him of this problem?

GENTLE READER: As a mathematician, you are understandably accustomed to thinking in terms of Right and Wrong. Allow Miss Manners to introduce you to the world of diplomacy, where there is – theoretically – no such choice (because when there is, diplomacy is abandoned for war).

There are, instead, misunderstandings. Being misunderstood is not insulting; indeed, people love to claim that they are being misunderstood.

Thus you can tell your principal that the children must have misunderstood his instructions, because they are doing X and thus getting the wrong answers, whereas, as you and he both know, the correct method is Y. You can then suggest that he return to the classroom to clarify what he meant, but add that you would be glad to do this for him.

Visit Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

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