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The etiquette of making (and keeping) a promise
The etiquette of making (and keeping) a promise

by Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy

A handshake is as good as a promise. Well, at least it used to be. I remember when I was a young boy my grandfather explained to me how business deals in the good old days were often concluded with merely a hand shake, which was as good as a signature. It seems that over time the integrity of this informal agreement has sadly all but disappeared. It can be very disheartening for someone who has honorable intentions to be painted with the same broad brush as the unscrupulous. And in our changed world people are skeptical. erring on the side of caution. The verbal promise sealed with a handshake is no longer the acceptable way.

The importance of impressing upon young children why keeping promises is the right thing to do cannot be overstated. I was recently listening to the tale of a small child who had spent all of his allowance on the single purchase of a much-coveted toy and then wanted more allowance for something else. This form of impatience is not unusual to find in small children and is merely their way of expanding boundaries by trying to push limits. However, an allowance by its very definition is designed to be doled out at predictable intervals in predictable amounts of money. This sort of deal must be upheld by both parties and it this interaction which teaches children respect for one another and for one system by which our society operates and remains healthy. You the parent have made the promise of an allowance and the child promises to accept and use the allowance for whatever he chooses. With any luck, we will have learned how this exchange works by the time we reach adolescence. If we haven’t we are likely to face some pretty difficult life lessons just when we least expect them.

Most of us were taught as young children that a promise is a promise and that breaking one is a really bad thing to do. Yet most of us have broken at least one promise along the way somewhere, often times because circumstances in our lives have changed in one way or another and we can no longer hold up our end of the deal.

On a cautionary note, I understand that we can be prone to making promises based more on emotion than on good, common sense when we are in a heightened state of emergency than when we are calm,cool and collected. In desperation we will agree to almost anything. In some cases, we can be bullied into agreeing to do something which we really do not want to do. This is an inappropriate form of making a promise and should be avoided at all costs. The results can be disastrous if taken to the extreme and this ploy needs to be recognized and diffused immediately.

Inevitably we run into a situation where a promise has been broken. In some financial situations, there are legally binding contracts which can be exercised at the discretion of the lender. In other more casual arrangements there is only a verbal agreement. One option for dealing with this unpleasantness is to put the responsibility of clearing the debt in the hands of the borrower. This way, they are making a deal on their own terms and in a way the deal is with themselves as much as it is with the lender. And because a promise has so much power, it it often used as the final bargaining chip when all else has failed. Clearly this can lead to a broken promise, and it can also lead to a broken friendship. People put a lot of stock in one’s ability to keep one’s word.

There are people whom we come across in person or hear about from others who have a well established reputation for keeping their word. These people we look up to as mentors. There was a time when politicians, media personalities, and sports heroes filled this bill. Sadly, this has all changed. We can no longer believe much of anything a politician says; we can believe little of what we hear or read in main stream media; and sports heros tarnish their reputations with alarming skill and regularity. However, we all know a few people who speak kindly of others, who steer clear of exaggeration, and who have the ability to see both sides of a discussion and weigh the pros and cons thoughtfully. These people help us maintain morality and integrity in our lives.

In Miguel Ruiz’s remarkable book, The Four Agreements, one of the keys is to be true to your word. This cardinal principle is a foundation building block for any relationship, whether it be of a personal nature or a societal one. Think hard before making a promise. It’s a big deal!

Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol.

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