GENTLE READERS: This is probably not the year to celebrate Valentine’s Day at the office.
There never was a time that even innocent romance belonged in the workplace. If it ends badly, there will be suspicions of retaliation. If it ends happily, there will be suspicions of favoritism.
But when a show of affection is condoned as ordinary office behavior, abuse becomes easy. Miss Manners was shocked to read of a prominent feminist who, discussing harassment, was quoted first about hating “when that dude hugs me” -- then, when a “no touching at work” rule was proposed, said, “I think that’s crazy.” She then talked about how she always hugs her colleagues.
What if some dude hates it when she does that?
It is not Miss Manners’ job to discipline outlaws. Dealing with sex crimes and misdemeanors is the responsibility of the legal system, with its severe punishments, although it has been noticeably slow to do so.
Etiquette is intended to regulate human behavior in the communal interest, but it is a voluntary system, which does not deter those who are determined to behave badly and feel no shame. It lacks weapons other than social disapproval and exclusion -- and these have been in short supply in the era of instant pop therapy and re-entry.
But as we have now seen, social pressure is essential in motivating those who do have power to enforce obedience. Unfortunately, it does not always operate for the good. That it long discouraged victims of harassment from seeking redress has now been thoroughly exposed.
That has been publicly acknowledged. But -- and here is where Miss Manners expects an argument -- well-meaning people continue to foster a dangerous environment. That includes the adorable-sounding fantasies about colleagues all being friends, if not one big family; jobs providing opportunities for leisure as well as work; and those unsolicited hugs being welcome and beneficial to all.
Thus professional manners were abandoned in favor of social manners: first names, casual clothes, birthday celebrations.
There was an excellent reason for opposing the old rules: All the respect and leeway they provided was accorded only to the male hierarchy. They were addressed by titles and surnames, but called any female, minority or low-level employees by their given names. Whatever socializing there was on office time, such as lunches or golfing breaks, was strictly for them. Their suits and ties -- not jeans and hoodies -- constituted the status look.
But when a need to modernize is recognized, it never seems to be done by applying the higher standard to all. And revisions in office behavior occurred at a time when the sweet idea was wafting around that personal friends are happier and more productive than mere colleagues.
Of course, that means that you don’t get to choose your personal friends; the boss chooses them for you. They may also be your rivals. And if you spend nonworking time with them, you must subtract that from time to spend with people you did choose.
So it does not seem to be a great sacrifice to expect cheerful but professional manners at work, so that those who are so moved can distribute their hugs on their own time.