Wall Street Journal

Miss Manners Minds Your Business by Anne Kreamer

My review originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. When Judith Martin published her first guide to manners in 1979, the country was still settling down after a decade-plus of countercultural upheaval. Women had become members of the workforce in large numbers, and men were being permitted a more relaxed affect (no ties, longer hair) in most offices. Television series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" were successful because they amusingly used workplace snafus to illustrate our shared post-1960s struggle to parse behavioral "rules" amid the new flux, and because they depicted the truth that, with more of us earning salaries full-time, the workplace had become a new kind of quasi-family.

Miss Manners, the amusingly arch and starchy avatar that Ms. Martin initially invented while at the Washington Post, was mock-conservative but also genuinely conservative, lightly ironic but ultimately quite serious about basic good manners. For a would-be establishment desperate for some plausible modern heir to Emily Post, she was an ideal spokesperson. Or is it spokeswoman? In her latest book, "Miss Manners Minds Your Business," our authority is torn on how best to deal with gendered titles. Somewhere during the past two decades, she writes, the rules "went into the shredder, engulfed by almost universal agreement that there should be no difference between professional manners and personal manners."

In "Miss Manners Minds Your Business," it often seems that Ms. Martin, Wellesley class of 1959, wants to wish away the era of "The Office" in favor of an improved, gender-blind "Mad Men" paradigm. Channeling her inner Joan Holloway, she admonishes us to create distinct behavioral spheres and norms for work and home. She declares that at the root of our 21st-century uncertainties about proper workplace behavior are the "two big lies of the modern workplace—that the old hierarchies are gone, so that all employees are equal, and that these new 'teams' are as bound together by friendship as by the accident of employment." She dismisses as faddish nonsense the idea "that people accomplish more when they become pals. It is in direct contradiction to what every schoolteacher knows about separating friends during class."

My reaction to this, as to so many of her assertions, was: Yeah, maybe, I guess, but. While most of one's co-workers aren't going to become close pals, in ultra-mobile contemporary America, work is indeed where many of one's important friendships will be made.

Still, Ms. Martin is right that a lot of stress these days derives from the porous membrane between the professional and the private. She aptly describes the complications that ensue when each of us, digitally connected, is expected to be available 24/7 for family while at work and for work while at home. "The demarcation between public and private was clearer when there was an office door," Ms. Martin writes. "Not every minute spent at work might have been spent on work, but the assumption was there. Cubicle 'farms,' 'open offices,' and lunch rooms—not to mention long hours—at work, and telecommuting, sales jobs, and social media bloggers off-site, have made it less clear what is on, and what off, the clock."

Absolutely. Ms. Martin is at her strongest when sorting through issues faced by parents or childless employees, and she lands firmly on the side of justice when she says that "many patterns of life in this country no longer fit the realities." Companies need to step up and address the needs of working families, she writes; "society has a crucial interest in the welfare of children, and therefore in making good care available, and therefore in designing respected and economically feasible jobs for parents, adult children, and professional assistants alike." Yes!

But I regret to report, with all due respect, that Miss Manners mostly fails to grapple with the thorniest problems of the modern office. When the average person will spend no more than four years in each job, how does one best enter a new workplace again and again and yet again? When it's projected that almost 40% of the workforce will be freelance by 2020, what are the peculiar etiquette issues faced by the self-employed?

"Miss Manners Minds Your Business" is composed of correspondence from her etiquette-anxious readers, to whom the author offers counsel and, along the way, broader cultural reflection. Ms. Martin and her son Nicholas have culled about 200-odd letters, many of which concern the circumstances of open-plan office environments: smelly food, smelly colleagues, noisy neighbors. A particular Miss Manners bugaboo—required attendance at office parties—comes up again and again. But nearly all the questions could have been asked and answered anytime during the past several decades. (Indeed, they were—different questions mention pagers, "dot-coms" and the cellphones that people have started using a lot. One letter is repeated verbatim from the 2005 edition of "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior," originally published in 1979.)

"Miss Manners Minds Your Business" feels musty, and not always in the lovably, charmingly ironic way that defined the Miss Manners sensibility 35 years ago. She does address a few nettlesome email problems (no response to an electronic job application, receiving unintended correspondence, reply-all responses, a young employee instant-messaging a boss), but mostly she just rues the new conditions. She doesn't delve into the best way to handle the tsunami of everyday electronic dysfunction that exasperates all of us—people who don't bother to carefully read the emails they get, or supervisors who answer emails at midnight yet fail to tell staff that they needn't answer immediately. What are the rules for texting during meetings? She doesn't say. How does one manage in a global company? Nary a question.

One thing Ms. Martin does say is that she isn't fond of emotional outbursts at work. "What helps in emotional situations is formality and ceremony," she says peremptorily, "not, as popularly believed, talking things out, which can easily lead to disaster." "When attempting to enter the business world," she writes, we need "to learn to be someone else. It is called having a professional identity."

Beyond the hyperbole, I fundamentally disagree with her wear-a-mask-to-work approach. Of course an employee should dress and speak appropriately for the environment in which she works and, even in our TMI age, sometimes play things close to the vest. But behavioral economists who study the workplace have identified something called "emotion labor," which in a nutshell is the effort required to maintain a difference between how you feel at your most natural and how you must act when circumstances require it. If too much effort is applied to "being someone else," it can be exhausting and demoralizing.

Employees and their bosses are clueless about how to draw boundaries in a boundary-less world. Antidiscrimination and harassment laws have legitimately constrained management but also left them and their employees uncertain how to demonstrate empathy or compassion, especially during financially challenging times. "Change was desperately needed, and, contrary to rumor, etiquette is not against change," Ms. Martin writes. "It only stipulates that it be well thought out, orderly change that preserves what is good from the past while rectifying what is bad." In our changing world, we crave sensible guidance. Miss Manners does her characteristic job providing a common-sense approach that may have worked in the past, but almost nothing suggests that she understands the bedeviling nature of etiquette at work in the quite different now.

What You Need To Know Before You Quit Your Day Job. by Anne Kreamer

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Going it alone is liberating – and tough.

At the height of the go-go late 1990s, when entrepreneurial optimism leached from the dot.com bubble into the rest of the work culture, I decided to go freelance as a writer and consultant.

In the past I’d worked in commissioned sales — both print advertising and television programs – so the notion of having compensation tied to performance didn’t particularly scare me. I’d also helped build media businesses, which allowed me to imagine that being a freelancer wouldn’t be all that different.

But at the time, I foolishly focused in on my past successes instead of what really mattered — the practical nitty-gritty.

Today, given the deluge of people going freelance as a result of the Great Recession — a recent Intuit study estimates that by 2020 the number of U.S. freelancers will be as high as 60 million or 40% of our workforce— it’s worth examining what this army of the newly minted self-employed will be likely to experience.

Having been in the freelance space for over a decade, here’s what I’ve learned:

It’ll Change Your Identity

Most of us spend great swaths of time at work. It’s no wonder we define ourselves by what we do there: The higher up a particular ladder we progress, the more money we make, and the more valuable and important we feel we’ve become. It’s a key way U.S. culture measures worth and success. (See Sandberg, Sheryl: Lean In)

When I stopped having a title, I changed overnight from being a person whose work and worth was easily calibrated by others, into something that felt amorphous and slippery. I was surprised by how emotionally vulnerable it made me feel.

It took me a year or more to begin to feel comfortable describing myself as a freelance journalist. Peer judgment, real or internally projected, can sideswipe someone in the midst of a career change. Before making the freelance leap, try to anticipate the full range of ways others’ evaluation of your new status will make you feel. That shouldn’t stop you, but you should be prepared.

It’s Expensive

Depending on what you choose to do, there will be savings – reduced wardrobe expense, potentially reduced transportation costs – but there are also significant costs to going it alone.

Setting up and operating a home office and business – legal fees (will your corporate self be an S, C or LLC?), bookkeeping and productivity software, computer hardware, website design and hosting, marketing, tax preparation (just to name a few) – costs real money. Don’t overlook the importance of funding retirement accounts or health insurance.

As for that paycheck, you should know when you go freelance, that you probably won’t earn as much money as you would have had you stayed in your company job.

Also know, that your future income will be hugely variable. Monthly retainers and long-term commitments are increasingly vestiges of a bygone era. It’s a given that clients will, in the best-case scenario, pay you 90 days after you submit your invoice. So craft a financial plan with built-in contingencies. 

It’s Hard Work

Before I went freelance, I’d thought the vicissitudes of sales jobs had thickened my skin for the ups and downs of freelance work, but it’s one thing to sell the product of a team effort and something else entirely when the product is … you.

Then, rejection becomes infinitely harder to shake off. Day in and day out, a freelancer has to get up knowing that they need to network and self-promote even when the process is grueling and humbling.

And the hard work doesn’t stop after a sale or a commission. Don’t expect to hear back from the prospective buyer for days and weeks. Developing a graceful way to continually seek reassurance that the work was acceptable and didn’t get lost in the company spam filter (a favorite way for freelancers to let-clients-off-the-hook-for-their-rudeness) can be a chronic, dispiriting challenge.

Finally, remember you’ll be wearing a lot of hats. And that’s definitely hard work. When the internet goes down or the printer jams, you are the IT department; when payments are in arrears, you are Accounts Receivable as well.

Some Things Need Collaboration

Developing new leads, hatching the best distribution or marketing plan, uncovering fresh sources for manufacturing, refining or expanding an idea — many things are improved with collaboration.

A loose network of friends and colleagues can help identify resources and brainstorm. Co-working spaces can also offer a collaborative environment. Virtual communities, like Freelancer.com or LinkedIn can provide leads and resources, but, let’s be honest, it’s lonely out there.

It Can Make You Happy

Having worked freelance for the past 15 years, I find I can no longer remember what it felt like to work a 9 to 5 job.  The irregular cash flow and diminished income is more than made up by the freedom to choose my work.  I love being wholly responsible for the success or failure of my output, which researchers have identified as a key determinant of workplace happiness.  A 2004 research study of 1,000 people by the Work Foundation suggests I’m not alone: More than 80% of those surveyed who were self-employed said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.”

When in doubt, I take solace from risk engineering professor Nassim Taleb’s assertion in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder that by buffeting about in the roiling waters of regular professional uncertainty, the freelancer becomes strong.

In a world where job security is a quaint 20th century artifact, perhaps evolving an independent, freelance career for oneself is a cleverly Darwinian means of survival.

One Question for Kare Anderson by Anne Kreamer

Kare Anderson is an Emmy-winning former NBC and Wall Street Journal reporter who now writes the Connected and Quotable column at Forbes, and speaks on communicating-to-connect. She’s the author of Moving From Me to We and co-founder of the Say it Better Center.

Kare Anderson

Q: What’s the most significant risk you’ve taken professionally?

Kare:   As a Wall Street Journal reporter, in my second week of work, based in London, and with no background in economics, I was told to interview one of the foremost economists in Europe.

He was so enraged by my “ineptitude” and “ignorance” that were “blindingly evident within minutes of my interview” that he stood up and started pointing and shouting at me in his office with the door open. Yes, I remember those exact words and phrases, and those are the ones that are “clean” enough for me to repeat here.

I kept asking for clarification of his terms and concepts and that irritated him more. A small crowd was forming just outside his door. I could hear tittering. The economy was bumpy then and he felt strongly about what the government should do. I simply did not understand him at first and it took quite awhile for me to decipher a couple of his views so (barely) adequately write my story.  My boss, the bureau chief was not happy with me when I returned and told him what had happened, including how he finally kicked me out of his office. Walking through that parade of chuckling staffers was not my best moment especially as he had spilled coffee on my skirt during one of his outbursts… I mean clarifications. He wrote a letter to the editor, quite articulately and vividly citing my flaws as a reporter. There were 30.

Yet several people wrote letters say they finally understood the underlying economic theory. That’s what most mattered to me, yet I know the writing was not my strongest because of the pressures I felt, being new to a news bureau and a country.

The unexpected upside for me (and I DO mean unexpected) was that his letter apparently boosted readership of my story… and many people, especially women, expressed outrage at him for his personal attacks. Even more women and men wrote letters to the editor in the coming weeks in support of me because the economist made the mistake of responding to some of the attacks by counter-attacking people by name, thus escalating it. I found it mortifying.

My boss was thankful that the battled was made personal, rather than about my “thin coverage” (his polite phrase) in my original story – and that the back and forth story had legs, getting picked up by other media outlets. My nimble French interpreter (I was moved around Europe and she spoke seven languages) and I bonded over the incident. She was wonderfully protective and reached out to her well-placed friends and family members to fan the flames of the story, I learned months later.

Ironically the visibility made people curious about me so it was easier to secure interviews. Above all it cemented my habit of doing more advance research before an interview and to grow credibility in one, specialized beat so it was less likely I had to cover stories outside my area of expertise.

What Do Glenn Beck, Jim Cramer, Rush Limbaugh and most bosses have in common? by Anne Kreamer

They don’t understand their anger. “In a culture where it’s easy to fire of a snippy e-mail or text,” reported Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal column ‘Friendly Fight:  A Smarter Say to Say I’m Angry,’  “most of have a hard time honestly expressing anger face to face.  If someone upsets us, often we shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, refuse to speak to the person or complain to everyone else.  Or we kid ourselves that we aren’t upset and subconsciously fume – until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing.”  And no one likes to be on the receiving end of explosive anger.

Sound familiar?  I bet it does.  In the research I conducted for my book, 60% of all Americans reported seeing their boss get angry with someone on the job during the past year.  And yet, none of us are ever taught how to deal with managing our anger or how to deal with others.

Anger is a biologically driven response to threat.  When threatened, we release the hormone epinephrine, followed by norepinephrine (noradrenaline), prepping the body to react – increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, and narrowing our focus as we prepare to flight or flee.  And this is what is at the crux of the issue for modern homo sapiens in the workplace:  pretty much as they did 200,000 years ago, our bodies continue to automatically process psychological threats as physical threats.  Deep inside we are all irredeemably very old school.  But the reality is that reacting to a psychological threat with a physical response is wildly inappropriate.  And this disconnect – this evolutionary lag in the development of more emotionally calibrated or sophisticated responses to psychological challenges – is a huge contributor to what makes navigating modern life so incredibly hard.  As the economist Terry Burnham, the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains:  How to Profit From the New Science of Irrationality, put it, “The caricature view would be, the caveman wins the battle, has more babies, crushes his enemies, then puts on a suit 10,000 years later and goes into a boardroom and still wants to crush his enemies.”

To be effective at work we need to learn how to handle this evolutionary gap in responding to non-physical threat.  I have created many tools to aid us in developing this challenging skill and one of the best is something I call DING.  Which relates to the concept of self-reflection or meta-cognition, which I’ll address in another post.