Office etiquette: Bringing Mad Men charm back to the workplace.

Charm Offensive

Office Culture Has Become Awkward and Boring. Bring Back the Mad Men Charm.

Charm Offensive

Office Culture Has Become Awkward and Boring. Bring Back the Mad Men Charm.
Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
March 25 2015 11:14 AM

Charm Offensive


In search of cubicle chic.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

Over the last 50 years, office culture has evolved beyond all recognition. Profanity, bottom-pinching, and unrestrained boozing have all been vanquished from the workplace by the trusty HR departments of corporate America, and just as well. I could handle the swearing, but my liver and my bottom had had enough already.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

Among the many changes that have taken place, the biggest and least charming concerns interpersonal communication—by which I mean the total absence thereof. Workers across the globe now spend their days in charmless monastic seclusion lost in a cloud of emails, to mention nothing of wasting eons of company time updating their Facebook pages with frolicsome, sun-blistered Cancún vacation snaps. Reintroducing charm into this drab, Orwellian environment will take commitment and verve; so stiffen the sinews and summon the Spanx, and let’s get on with it.

We’ll start by confronting the elephant in the typing pool, the total lack of face-to-face communication. There’s only one way to address this issue: a short, brutal course in exposure therapy. Take my hand, and let’s walk together into the lion’s den, aka another person’s office.


Start by wordlessly alighting in the doorway of the targeted office. Extend your right arm into the air in a circular motion and grab the door frame, as high up as possible. This will attenuate your physique and make you appear lithe and attractive. Place your left hand on your hip and smile, and wait. As soon as your colleague clocks your presence, drop your arm, glide forward, and park one previously pinched buttock insouciantly on the colleague’s desk corner.

Imagine you are encountering a feral toddler. Remember that your visitee has probably not had any direct contact with another colleague in months, if not years. Start with a compliment or two. Next, why not share a few lighthearted observations about current affairs? But nothing too controversial. Follow this with a little badinage and dollop of persiflage. Do not expect much in the way of a response, and don’t exhaust your visitee by overstaying your welcome. Little and often. Now slither off the desk and reverse charmingly and mysteriously through the aperture whence you came.

Once you have broken the ice and are on speaking terms with your colleagues, the real charm offensive can begin. My approach is unapologetically retro: In order to put the charm back into America’s offices, I believe we must revive certain dusty office conventions of the 1950s. There are kernels of reverse-chic wisdom in that Mad Men office etiquette—those pre-computer conventions and mores—that will soon have your entire organization vibrating with charm.

Let’s start by bringing back formality. In the late ’60s, my first U.K. retail job was in the John Lewis department store chain (where the motto was Never Knowingly Undersold and none of us knew what it meant), and we employees addressed each other as Mr. and Miss and Mrs. like on the Brit comedy series Are You Being Served? Reviving this convention, especially if the location were in a youth-centric hipster startup Brooklyn or Silicon Valley milieu, would be unexpected and undeniably charming: “Oh. Mr. Roberts, we are running out of cash to fund the office cold-press juice bar. Grab Mr. Welch and Miss. Dingle and Mrs. Davenport and let’s go out for another round of financing.”

Chapter One
Conversation Skills
Chapter Two
Personal Style
Chapter Three
Cubicle Chic
Chapter Four
Domestic Cheer
Chapter Five
Digital Charm & Conclusions

Next, bring back tantrums and hissy fits. In the past, it was not unusual for one’s boss to wig out on a regular basis. It was written into the job description. Today this is unheard-of. Confrontational or aggressive behavior is virtually extinct. This is a good thing in certain ways, but there is a downside: An entire generation is in danger of reaching retirement age without ever having had the pleasure of watching a pompous boss implode with indignation. Sound paradoxical? Watching the office high-ups crack under the pressure of “life at the top”—thereby exhibiting infantile vulnerability—is charming and undeniably comical. So let’s bring back boss-rage, cautiously and carefully, and in a controlled environment where the emotions are directed at inanimate objects rather than fellow employees. With that in mind, why not instigate a monthly piñata day? The blindfolded bosses can indulge in a rocks-off whack attack, whilst surrounded by mocking minions.

In addition to therapeutic aggression, a more playful approach to language will, especially now that we are all going to be talking to each other once more, add charm to any workplace. For example, you’ve all heard of Polly Paranoia. Well how about Priscilla Promotion, Belinda Budget Meeting, Molly Marketing Department, Sally Stapler, Sheree Shredder, and Trixie Travel Policy? This seemingly idiotic trope—I call it radically feminized alliteration—will add charm to the rainiest day. “Have you seen Wendy Weather Forecast? Denise Deluge!”

And then there’s Dolly Distraction. In addition to a screamer, every office used to boast a chronic time-waster. This underoccupied pest would walk the hallways looking to subvert busier colleagues, and, as a result, was universally loathed. Interrupting people was considered very bad form and deeply uncharming. Fast-forward to today, when the idea of an office pest has a certain allure.  A person whose sole function is to snap fellow workers out of their screen-centered fugue states will be performing God’s work.

Lastly and most importantly, let’s bring back the WHILE YOUR WERE OUT pad. Yes, it would no longer serve a real function, but don’t you miss those little pink charmers? For the benefit of younger readers, permit me to explain. Back in the day, if one stepped away from one’s desk and one’s phone rang, one’s colleague might well leap over and answer it. This was done not to be helpful but rather to terminate the diabolical jangling. (For some reason phones used to be deafeningly loud. Think fire alarm.) Having answered your phone, your colleague would scrawl the message and number onto a pink slip emblazoned with the words WHILE YOU WERE OUT and slap it on your desk. The downside: After a two-week vacation, you would return to encounter a pink Matterhorn of WHILE YOU WERE OUT slips. The upside: These missives were invariably scrawled with such haste and uncharming resentment that they were all illegible, thereby relieving the recipient of the need to respond.