A Hypothetical Situation That Makes a Much Bigger Lesson Easier to Understand

From Rod’s Success SecretsClick here for the rest of the ongoing series.

by Rod D. Martin
January 7, 2016

inc logo

You would be surprised how many people don’t accept a breath mint when it’s offered to them.

Maybe you’ve refused one yourself. You shouldn’t have.

If someone offers you a breath mint, they might just be being polite. If so, you may not want a mint just then, but it’s rarely polite or kind to turn down someone’s offered generosity.

But more likely, if they offered you a mint, you needed it. You just didn’t realize it.

It’s amazing how much, ahem, offense you can give without knowing it.

The first lesson of breath mints is that you should strive to pick up on the subtleties of life. People tell you things you need to know all the time: what it will take to close the sale, that they’re agitated, that they’re not feeling well, that you’re upsetting them in some way, that they’re crazy about you, all sorts of things. Experts tell us that 93% of communication is non-verbal – 55% body language and 38% tone of voice – while just 7% is verbal.

If you missed the breath mint hint, which was spoken, how do you think you did on the other 93% of what was “said”?

But there’s a much bigger lesson.

The person who refused the breath mint thought to himself, “I don’t need one.” He didn’t think, “what if someone else needs me to have one?”

There’s a world of difference in those two statements. The first isn’t really an assessment of need: it’s a statement of want, or rather the lack thereof. It’s a personal preference: “right now, I’m not in the mood for a breath mint.”

The second is a statement of concern for the other person: “okay, I don’t necessarily want a breath mint, but maybe I’m offending this person.” It is a tiny expression of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is putting the other person ahead of yourself.

(And anyway, trust me: you probably need the breath mint. You probably need one right now.)

The breath mint rule isn’t about breath mints: it’s about abandoning the self-absorption of childhood and actively thinking of the needs of others, in all things.

Children believe that manners are just lists of dos and don’ts, onerous burdens placed upon them for very little reason. Adults understand, or ought to, that manners are about showing kindness and respect. Children think the world revolves around them. Mature people understand that the exact opposite is and ought to be true.

This is, in point of fact, the difference between civilization and barbarism.

Barbarism is about getting one’s own way. It is based on strength: the strongest is considered the best. One shows his strength by doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants (and let us be clear, it is most definitely “he,” because in the absence of the unnatural concern for those weaker which is characteristic of Christendom and those cultures influenced by it, “she” is generally just chattel). Barbarism needs no manners because it has fists. Respect is paid in proportion to them.

Civilization values all, and the measure of a civilization is at least in part how broadly “all” is defined. This does not mean that a civilization should put up with bad behavior – rudeness, murder, what have you – but it does mean that it should treat all with dignity, not based upon their strength but based upon their being. Jefferson said that this is because all people share certain unalienable rights. Jefferson inherited this idea from Christians who believed that everyone is equally created in the image of God.

Manners are the necessary outworking of civilization. Losing them is bad for business. It’s also a dangerous portent for the future.

Many parents of the past two generations have failed to teach basic manners, much less this, to their children. Many of them did not know or appreciate it themselves. But it’s not too late for you.

Military officers have “Fork and Knife School” and entrepreneurs and other leaders can do likewise. There are many business etiquette courses available, some of them online. There are books – Amy Vanderbilt, Emily Post and Judith Martin are probably the best – and blogs and many other resources as well.

Successful people take the breath mint. They think about the needs of others. They seek out the information being conveyed without words. They don’t just lollygag through life, thinking the world is all about them.

It’s time to grow up.

This article appeared in Inc. Magazine, and originally appeared as an answer on Quora. Later, it was featured as the subject of a news story in The Independent over in the UK. Really!