The Downton Abbey Guide To Business Manners

What can you learn about etiquette from the hit TV series? Here are 4 Downton Abbey-inspired tips to take your business up a notch.
January 06, 2014

On New Year's Day in 2011, I sat in my living room with endless cups of hot tea and my laptop, streaming the entire first season of Downton Abbey episodes back to back. I came to loathe bathroom breaks (because Anna … Mr. Crawley … Lady Mary!) and fell in love with the myriad of ways this cast of characters related, thrived and, on occasion, fell on swords much of their own design. After a few brief hours, I was forever lost to the goings-on of the Crawley family and their household staff.

What struck me most, however, was the manner in which business—personal and otherwise—gets done inside the perimeter of Downton Abbey. Could your business learn a thing or two about business manners from the likes of a fictional family and its staff as they buzz around a Victorian-era British estate?

Think about how these four guidelines could improve the way you do business:

Respect The Rules

One of the most striking qualities about the Downton Abbey story is how close the relationships are between the to-the-manor-born Crawley family and its household staff. So let me ask: How often do you forget that every transaction requires two parties? The people on both sides of a business interaction and/or transaction have feelings, days both bad and beautiful, challenges, victories and agendas.


Downton Abbey story is how close the relationships are between the to-the-manor-born Crawley family and its household staff.


The Crawley family understands that, in order for their household to run as it does, the staff has to want to stay. The staff members at Downton do more than that, however. They become fierce advocates for the Crawley family, protecting their employers at all costs.

Why? Respect. The Crawley family invests in its staff, and in return, the staff invests in the Crawley family. If only we could say as much about how we run our business and the respect we carry into each business situation with colleagues, employees and customers alike. So what does that respect look like? Well, it begins with gratitude.

Always Say Thank You

The Crawley family and its staff is always at the ready with a thank you. Even when conversations don’t go in a favorable direction for one party or another, there’s still a thank you.

How often do you end a less-than-favorable conversation on a snarky or otherwise gratitude-free note?

Even conversations that don’t turn out our way can have notes of gratitude. Here are two ways to find the “thank you,” Downton Abbey-style, in your next business exchange:

1. Remember, this conversation could have just not happened. Ever walked into a meeting, pitch or other business situation and gotten shot down? Well, here’s the upside: You were given an audience. You made the ask. You said what needed saying. Those are three things for which we can be thankful. Even Mr. Carson, the head of the household staff, is told no after decades of service to the Crawley family. Not everything will go your way, but you can be damn glad that it’s going.

2. There’s more than what’s at hand. Whomever you’re in front of—a business relation new or old—there’s more going on than just the conversation at hand. The Crawley family and its household staff have relationships that run deeper than Anna merely being in service to Lady Mary or O’Brien to Lady Grantham. There are intimacies, confidences and future opportunities at hand. A thank you today can preserve the relationships earned in the past along with laying the groundwork for deeper relationships in the future.

Be Straightforward

Who doesn’t love the Dowager Countess? She’s always at the ready with a well-timed quip, that one thing no one else in the room quite has the gumption to say. She’s a snob (albeit, a loveable one) to the nth degree, but she’s proof that getting straight to the point has its merits.

Sometimes the most respectful thing you can do in a tenuous situation is cut to the chase. Leave the buzzspeak, double talk and pleasantries behind, and set aside everything that’s been quite the waste of time—all in the interest of creating an understanding or a solution.

We’re afraid to discuss money because, oh, I don’t know. Because it’s really a zombie and we feel it’s going to eat us alive, should we broach the subject? Aside from the fact that there are no zombies (not yet, at least) in the Downton Abbey saga, financial discussions should always have the utmost directness. Leave vagaries for happy hour, and get money matters out front. The Earl of Grantham has no issue stating to the family that there are certain financial concerns when they become dire.

When you encounter a challenge with an employee, get it out in the open. We can all see (and delight in) the behind-the-scenes drama involved in all of O’Brien and Thomas’s plotting. Matters are resolved, however, when all that pettiness is presented to Mrs. Hughes or Mr. Carson (or heaven forbid, Lord or Lady Grantham). Chatter is easy. It’s also a bit on the weak and rather unproductive side. Hard conversations take pulling up some well-pressed britches. How are your britches looking these days?

Be Mindful Of Appearances

Today’s business environment has a much more lax appearance than even that of a decade ago. Home offices and co-working environments are all the rage, and it’s rare to see anyone dress for a meeting anymore.

But there’s still something to be said about putting your best look forward, along with your feet.

While we’ll never lapse back to the multiple wardrobe changes that the Crawley family indulges in, we can make more effort to get dressed like we mean it in the morning. Have you ever noticed that you feel differently when you put on something a bit nicer than your standard clothing fare? Think about that the next time you’re prepping to meet with a new client, customer or vendor.

I can’t help but wonder what the business world would be like if we all kicked one piece of clothing up a notch each day. And it’s less about the spend and more about the investment—the emotional investment. I can’t help but think that if we always dress as if there’s no one to impress, we’ll just flat-out never impress anyone.

But that simply wouldn’t do. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes wouldn’t have that, not for their staff nor the Crawley family and their guests.

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Photos: PBS