You're standing in the back of a crowded elevator. The elevator stops at your floor and you say "Excuse me," but the people toward the front of the car don't budge. Do you shriek "getting off" and elbow your way to the front or meekly ride to the next floor?
A co-worker has the phone to his ear and his eyes on the computer screen. Should you hover over the desk and thumb through the morning paper or just plunge right into conversation?
Your child needs a set of No. 2 pencils for school and the stationery store has none. Why not take a batch from office supplies?
The dilemmas illustrate how the atmosphere in the workplace has changed from one of formality to one of laissez faire.
Abraham Zaleznik, a psychoanalyst and the Matsushita professor emeritus of leadership at the Harvard business school, traces the changes to the 1960s, when traditional values and manners came under fire.
"Corporate America experimented with the idea that letting it all hang out was a means of achieving harmony in the office," Zaleznik says.
"Then came the computer culture and a new wave of authority in which corporations were encouraged to be less hierarchical and more egalitarian, which was supposed to increase participation in the organization by producing a higher comfort level by eliminating or minimizing symbols of authority."
The results were a more informal workplace where everyone, from the chairman down to the receptionist, was on a first-name basis; where employees shared everything from the workload to lunch; where jeans with jackets and ties were as commonplace as three-piece suits. But somehow familiarity began to breed contempt.
"Whenever I'd address my boss, he'd always say, 'What?' " says a paralegal who works in a New York law firm. "Once, he called upon me and I responded the same way, with a 'What?' and he accused me of sounding hostile."
Employers and employees alike are reluctant to talk about office problems or to criticize colleagues. But privately, both sides complain things have gotten out of hand.
Among the most commonly voiced gripes about both managers and employees are these: starting the day with a request (or a demand) rather than with a good morning; viewing an open door as an invitation to walk in and sit down; routinely leaving desks or offices without informing anyone of whereabouts; dropping trash on the floor and leaving it for the maintenance crew to clean it up; and believing that paychecks are compensation enough and that there is no need for "please" and "thank-you" for jobs done or services requested.
Letitia Baldrige, one of America's leading arbiters of manners, found bad manners and oafishness so widespread in large corporations in the early 1980s that she wrote "Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to Executive Manners" (Rawson Associates, 1985).
"There were a lot of self-help books telling you how to get rich," she recalls. "There was nothing to tell you how to behave on your way there."
In 1983, upon releasing his book "The New Office Etiquette" (Poseidon Press), George Mazzei said, "There has been a breakdown in business manners and people are realizing they can no longer deal with the constant rudeness which became a part of the business world when crude young people became superstars."
In a recent interview, Mazzei, a former journalist, said people have now grown accustomed to such rudeness.
"The whole point of etiquette is to enable people to cope with a situation that is difficult in a tolerable way and to help you enjoy your job," he said. "Right now, the only career value that means anything to certain executives is the bottom line."
The puzzle is what can be done to change things.
Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist who writes the "Miss Manners" column, says, "The opposite of manners is not informality. The problem is, and it is not confined to the business world, that there is a lessening commitment to the idea of good manners."
The situation has created considerable confusion in the workplace.
"People can't really tell their friends from their business associates, but people who are thrown together for business purposes are your colleagues," Martin says. "There are misunderstandings that result from this, like the person who is hit by the 15th office collection for someone they hardly know."
Lois Tansey, director of advisory services for the Ethics Resource Center, a Washington non-profit group that works to build society's ethical foundation, says that for the best reasons managers don't want to enforce arbitrary values on people.
"So there are those people who think their own personal values are just fine," she says.
"When businesses moved toward more informal structure and empowering workers, it was fine," she says. "But perhaps it's gone a bit too far. Now businesses are setting higher standards for themselves and their employees."