1960s in the Office


The office of the 1950s and ‘60s was, in many ways, the embodiment of the American dream; it allowed for a comfortable salary, an independent lifestyle, and room for advancement. From a 21st century perspective corporate culture of the mid 20th century seems contradictory: it was hierarchical, with a strict code of etiquette among all staff; despite these formalities, however, drinking, smoking, and socializing on the job were commonplace, even encouraged. Amy Vanderbilt, a popular expert in manners throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, published her Complete Book of Etiquette: A Guide to Gracious Living, in 1959; its contents reveal how structure and expectations defined corporate culture.

From Chapter 20: A Man’s Manners in the Business World:

Young men who want to become executive material must do more than apply themselves to the technique of their jobs. They must school themselves in social as well as in business manners if they want to get ahead. They must learn how to dress, how to conduct themselves on various social and business occasions, how to communicate their ideas to others in concise, well-chosen language. We have all known successful businessmen whose grammar was bad, whose taste in clothes was atrocious, and who broke every rule of good manners, if indeed they knew any existed.…The great corporations invariably practice a most formal business etiquette. Their façade is imposing, they employ well-dressed, soft-spoken receptionists, they provide private offices and interoffice communications to cut down on noise and traffic. They usually exercise considerable control over the behavior and appearance of their employees.

When Does a Man Rise?

In business a man does not rise when his secretary enters his office to take dictation, although if she is newly assigned to him as his personal secretary he does rise to greet her and to shake her hand if he offers it. He rises if he has a woman caller—unless she is a job applicant for a nonexecutive position. If he is on the telephone or dictating when she enters, he nods, indicates a chair, and rises when he has concluded his conversation.

If he is at his desk and a superior, man or woman, enters, he rises and waits until he is asked to be seated again or the caller leaves. If a male co-worker enters his office, he does not rise unless, perhaps, to greet him after an absence, for gentlemen always rise to shake hands—even with a man—or excuse themselves for being able to do so for some reason.

Who Precedes Whom?

In leaving a room in a business office a man always steps back to allow his suprerior to go first if the other is about to leave too, or, if there seems to be some delay, asks his permission to go first. From the standpoint of superiority, the top executives certainly have the priviledge of leaving before their inferior women emloyees, but I have notice that, even in business, most gentlemen step aside, no matter what the capacity, to permit the women present to go first, even women in nonexecutive capacities.

Smoking in the Office

A superior, man or woman, calling upon another employee may, of course, smoke without asking permission, but an outsider may not smoke in the office of someone else unless he is asked to do so.

A Man’s Secretary

A really experienced and urbane executive keeps his relations with his secretary on a friendly but purely business basis even after years of association. In very informal offices a secretary is sometimes called by her first name, especially in small towns where everybody knows everybody else. But to an outsider—and remember, such business may grow to be big, impersonal corporations in time—it seems less than businesslike and sometimes a shade too intimate for a man to call his secretary “Mary” instead of “Miss Jones,” at least in office hours.

The Pretty Secretary

It is only human for a man to want his secretary to be neat, attractive, and, if possible, pretty. He has to look at her all day long. But the more attractive she is, the more, for his own and her protection, he must treat her with careful, polite objectivity. The quickest way to trouble, a straight line into the maze of gossipy office politics, is for a man to pay more than business attention to his secretary. If it happens that both are free to have some social life together, if they wish, they should still maintain formal relations in the office if their efficiency is not to suffer. Even at that, it is difficult for the woman, especially, not to show others that she has her boss under rather special control.

The Executive on the Telephone

In a personal service organization–one that depends on its daily contact with others for its business–an executive should answer his own phone, if atall possible. Many a deal has been queered by a snippy secretary’s self- important announcement to the telephone caller, “This is Mr. Brown’s secre- tary speaking. What did you want to talk to him about?” It is always that awkward and infuriating past-tense phrase, too. Mr. Brown is probably right there swaying back in his swivel chair and quite able to pick up the phone himself. If he’s any kind of an executive, he can dispose of unwanted callers with tact and dispatch and he does not run the risk of cutting off his business blood supply.

But in case a man or woman executive is really busy, actually out of the office, or for the moment can’t be disturbed, it is vital in almost any kind of business for the intermediary to handle the call in a way that will not hur the firm’s public relations. Humanly enough, many secretaries built up their employers’ importance in their own minds in order to bolster their own egos, and this reluctance to let the outside world—no matter how important the call is—at the Great Being is all too apparent.

Is it Necessary to Meet Socially with One’s Employees?

From the employer’s standpoint it is rarely essential except perhaps in a small community for him and his wife to pay serious social attention to the families of junior executives. Business luncheons, an occasional drink, per- haps, with a younger man, or a few rounds of golf often suffice. Executives who are too close socially often work less well, rather than better, together, for they lose their objectivity or at least feel they should repress it. It is a good thing in business to be able to speak out fair and valuable criticism without thought of close friendship. Staff promotions, too, are better handled when the owners are on relatively formal terms with all employees rather than intimate with a chosen few. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, “Love your business associates but don’t pull down your hedge.”


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