In 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
Dad’s “far-flung network of inscrutable spies” has reported that his son is, in short, a lazy slob, so Dad feels obligated to explain how to be a civilized adult.
Professionalism and Appearances
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on July 17, 1937
Dear son: My far-flung network of inscrutable spies has been reporting on you. They tell me that the boss likes you, that you get along fine with your fellow salesmen, and your selling record is improving all the time. And I hear, too, that you are a hard worker, but the minority report says you work hard only in fits and starts, and that you are inclined to be sloppy about your appearance and slovenly about your speech.
I can hear you say, “So what? Does the firm want a salesman or a movie hero? Am I supposed to deliver sales or speeches? And how can a fellow be expected to work at top speed all the time?”
Let’s take the last thing first. No one is going to expect you to work at top speed all the time. No one does it, no one can, no one should try. A career is a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash, and the technique for getting there is pretty much the same. A man who tried to win a marathon in successive 100-yard dashes would never even finish the distance, much less place. A steady, relentless dogtrot does the trick. A race horse can beat a man around a one-mile track, but a man can run a race horse to death by just keeping after him and never letting up.
And now about your appearance. I know you have never given it much thought, so you probably feel that because you don’t think of it, no one else does. When you were a small cub, no one cared very much whether your ears were polished or your pants were pressed. In college, you considered a sweater the height of elegance, and you went around in a raccoon coat that a raccoon wouldn’t have dared come down to dinner in. Occasionally you gave a pretty fair imitation of how a civilized man should look and act, but these inspirations usually faded out as soon as the young lady transferred her attentions elsewhere. Now you complain that your fiancée is always after you to buy some new clothes. She thinks your ties are fierce and your shirts are a horror. I suspect she is right. I am not touched by your complaint that if you listen to her, she will have you all powdered and perfumed like a Persian kitty.
Probably the worst that will happen to you is that your suits will be pressed, your shoes will be shined, your hair will be cut, your fingernails manicured, and your haberdashery will not be fighting a continuous guerrilla warfare with the rest of your attire.
Almost 200 years ago, Lord Chesterfield, writing to his son, said, “Dress well, but not too well. Be neither negligent nor stiff. As you must attend to your manners, so you must not neglect your person.” And then he added, “My Lord Bacon says that a pleasing figure is a perpetual letter of recommendation. It is certainly an agreeable forerunner of merit and smooths the way for you.” You may recall, I gave you a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters a few years ago, hoping you would read them all and profit by most of them. I marked a number of passages for your special attention, but the following rated three stars, or maybe it was four. “Dress is one of the various ingredients that contribute to the art of pleasing; it pleases the eyes at least, and more especially of women. Address yourself to the senses if you would please; dazzle the eyes, soothe and flatter the ears of mankind; engage their hearts and let their reason do its worst against you. … Whenever you find yourself engaged insensibly in favor of anybody of no superior merit or distinguished talent, examine and see what it is that has made those impressions upon you; you will find it to be that douceur, that gentleness of manners, that air and address which I have so often recommended to you; and from thence draw this obvious conclusion, that what pleases you in them, will please others in you; for we are all made of the same clay, though some of the lumps are a little finer, and some a little coarser; but in general the surest way to judge of others is to examine and analyze oneself thoroughly.”
Incidentally, I note in one of your recent letters that you have started to make friends with the dealers in your territory by doing little favors for them whenever possible. This is a good plan, but not the best. One thing wrong with it is that it is too obvious. Another, that it is not nearly so effective as the reverse method. If you really want to make an impression on people, if you want to make them feel friendly toward you, if you want them to remember you gratefully, let them do something for you. When you do something for someone, whether it’s to lend him money or tell him about a good place to eat, you have done him a favor, to be sure, but you have also put him under obligations to you, and he is bound to resent it just a little, even if he isn’t conscious of this resentment. Let him tell you about a good place to eat. It will make him feel superior. It will give him a glow. It will give you an opportunity, the next time you see him, to tell him how smart he was. That will build him up. He will always remember that he recommended a restaurant to you. He will soon forget that you ever recommended one to him.
Did I say something about lending money? Let me add a word. Don’t! If a friend wants to borrow money from you, ask yourself if you can afford to lose it. If you can afford to lose it, give it to him, don’t lend it. Tell him to forget it. And see that you forget it too. If you can’t afford to lose it, hang on to it. Now that you have started out to make friends, remember there is nothing so painful as having a friend who owes you money and who can’t repay you. It hurts him worse than it hurts you, and it hurts you plenty. You don’t make friends or keep them by lending them money. Polonius was an old bore, but one of his nifties is worth pasting in your hat:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend.
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