One of life’s great pleasures is that of visiting used bookstores and the chance to find some gem of a book. Last weekend, I was at a favorite second-hand bookstore and came across Letitia Baldrige’s Complete Guide to Executive Manners.
You may be thinking: an etiquette book? That’s a gem? But it happens that I love etiquette books. A well-thought out account of etiquette is a work of philosophic anthropology, a study of what makes a society work well. And, in turn, a notion of what makes a society work well points to what charitable organizations are most important to support.
This particular etiquette guide, one of twenty Ms. Baldrige wrote after serving as Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary, came out in 1985 and is a product of that time. For example, reflecting the fact that so many Americans had come to prefer Toyotas to Chevrolets that the Japanese economy had just become the world’s second-largest, Ms. Baldrige devotes by far the longest portion of her discussion of etiquette abroad to behavior in Japan. After recommending that executives cultivate their small talk, Ms. Baldrige puts “women astronauts” near the top of her list of suitable topics—this just after Sally Ride had became the first U.S. women in space. With what comes across as bearing a tone of modernizing zeal in the middle of the Reagan years, Ms. Baldrige endorses the replacement of “Sir” or “Ma’am” with “Mr.” and “Ms.”—while today anything other than a first-name greeting comes across as old-fashioned.
These aspects of Ms. Baldrige’s book are dated, but her overall approach to etiquette is timeless. She describes not a strict set of rules, but general guidelines to be applied as circumstances require. For example, in discussing how someone might offer assistance to the widow of a colleague who has just died, she writes:
There may be no one to answer telephones, in which case he should arrange to have someone (intelligent) answer all calls.
How much is packed into that parenthetic insertion, “intelligent”! Grace, tact, and judiciousness—they are all implied to be essential. That “intelligent” approach sums up Ms. Baldridge’s approach to etiquette: someone who can intelligently answer calls at the home of the newly bereaved is up to every other question of etiquette.
What also impresses throughout the book is how Ms. Baldrige insists not only upon being someone who can say and do the correct thing, but being someone who says and does interesting things. Her chapter on “executive conversation” is the second longest in the book. It begins with an extended discussion of the importance being a good conversationalist, which she describes as the “natural cornerstone” of all an executive’s communication skills:
Many attributes characterize a good conversationalist, including being polite and caring about other people. Another strong requirement is a measure of intelligence. . . . [H]e also knows how to participate, at least minimally, in discussing subjects like politics, science, and art.
In short, Ms. Baldrige’s model is a well-mannered, liberally educated person—and it’s a model to be cultivated at all levels in any serious business, not just in the executive suite. She includes being a good conversationalist among the key skills of an executive assistant, and she charges bosses with cultivating that quality: “If her experiences have been extremely limited, encourage her to go to museums and lectures to learn, to read good books, to take adult extension courses at night. (Offer to pay for part of the tuition.)”
This model of the well-mannered, liberally educated person leads Ms. Baldrige to argue that philanthropy directed to the arts is important to businesses and executives—support of institutions that offer “cultural enrichment” is on her short list goals for any well-thought out plan of corporate philanthropy. She insists that this is not just for the biggest businesses that can underwrite major museums and theatrical companies: she urges executives at small companies to consider renting art from a local museum, including museum memberships among employee benefits, and making trips to exhibitions on company time.
Ms. Baldrige’s vision of the social good is unabashedly “highbrow.” But her arguments put philanthropy towards the arts in a friendlier light than is often the case today. Philanthropic support of the arts is often seen cynically as the rich supporting their own pastimes—and taking money out of the pockets of the middle class to boot by claiming a tax deduction to support opera, theatre, and costly exhibitions. But Ms. Baldrige makes the case that the liberally educated person is the essential precondition for the success of American business—and, by extension, for the success of America a commercial republic, as understood by Alexander Hamilton and other Founders. If she’s right, philanthropy directed to the arts is truly civic-minded.