As our cultures meet and mix, the "right" etiquette is being rapidly transformed. We indeed live in an ever-changing world.
Wait a minute! Etiquette!?
Hard-nosed business consultant Bender is not slowly leaving orbit. Get on your computer. Call up Google or any search engine. Enter the word "etiquette". You will be swamped with so much information you couldn't read it all in a lifetime.
If etiquette means for you simply the proper way to handle a napkin or your knife, think again. There is etiquette for everything from golf, how to hang a flag, using the Internet, to the proper way to deal with people with disabilities.
Dealing globally, etiquette can make or break your business deal. You can be seen as a sophisticated dealer or an uncouth boob. And that applies whether you are visiting another country whose customs are different, or hosting business people from abroad.
In Canada, we like to think we deal well in the global marketplace. There are a lot of books available on that. On the web ExecutivePlanet.com and others list many categories for dealing with your foreign counterpart. These include negotiating, entertaining, respectful address, and business dress. It even suggests appropriate topics for conversation in the culture with which you are in contact.
Just assume the Queen of England came to visit. You will be treated to a prime example of etiquette at work. The politicians and diplomats call it "protocol". For her visit you will find a long list of instructions spelled out - even on how to shake hands with the monarch. That detail is not unimportant. Imagine shaking 600 or 700 hands a day! That's what the Queen does, and that's the reason for the protocol.
Oh for the simpler, happy old days in Switzerland! We used a book called Der Knigge. It explained exactly how to sit, hold your fork, your wineglass, the way to position your shoulders and your chest. And much more.
In North America we read Miss Manners, and were taught from Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home. Bartleby.com incidentally, republished her 697-page 1922 classic in 1999 - on the Internet. Young people today may laugh their heads off at the idea of etiquette training. But Emily Post's book is still valid commentary on manners and customs in North America. Access it. You might find it enlightening.
Emily Post goes right to the heart of the importance of manners and etiquette. I believe her words hold true for dealing with any culture, no matter how complicated the variations.
"Manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality-the outward manifestation of one's innate character and attitude toward life.... Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners. Certainly what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be-"
In short, etiquette reflects the outward manifestation of the person. In all of my business books I have emphasized that your appearance influences how successfully you will interact with others. Therefore, etiquette is not fluff.
In the old days youngsters attended mixed etiquette classes where they were taught how properly to respond to other men and women. To dress. To converse. To walk. To dance. And, of course, to eat. It was all clearly defined.
I like the classic story of two girls, who grew up in the same town, and later met in Toronto. One was explaining to the other how well her life had turned out. She had met the most handsome-looking man. He had no bad habits. He always listened sympathetically to all her problems. He had a yacht, a chalet in Switzerland with a private airstrip, and a penthouse beachfront condo in Florida. Her friend kept responding "How interesting, how interesting."
When she then asked her friend how her life had turned out, the reply was: "I attended etiquette school, which taught me many things. Principally, though, it told me how to stop responding to conversation by saying "bullshit", and substituting "How interesting."
Etiquette is the learned behavior of a group. John Wayne was a very courteous man in real life, and there is no doubt his manner helped him to get where he did. A smile, a pleasant demeanor, a good handshake. That hasn't changed. Etiquette is cultural behavior training and comes from your peer group and parents. It usually begins with training in eating. There is no question the main idea is to get the food into your mouth and as little as possible on your clothes. But there are 999 cultural variations on how to do that properly. You learned to eat from your mother. You think the way she taught you is the right way. If you attended any etiquette-training course, you think that behavior is right. Problems arise because there are so many cultures. There are so many "right" ways. It's difficult to know what to do.
On a tour through Malaysia, I was invited to lunch by a group of seven attractive young women. There are many differences between the dining customs of that group, and those of Canada or Switzerland.
First of all, there was no cutlery at all, not even chopsticks. As the guest of honor, they invited me to start the meal. I stalled, and asked them to start. They stalled and insisted I begin. Finally, I gave up.
I well remember the collective gasp when I reached for a piece of fruit with my hand - my left hand. In Muslim countries generally the left hand is regarded as unclean. It is taboo to use it for meals, or really for anything else, such as extending it to give or receive a gift, or touching another person, unless it is impossible to avoid. This applies even if you are left-handed.
There are a lot of taboos and they all have a basis in culture, often not needed any more. In Switzerland if you are seated formally around a table it is taboo to eat anything with your hand, except to accept a piece of bread. But in the case of asparagus, you eat it only by hand. You also never cut it! That is regarded as uncouth. (The reason is that in the olden days knives were made from common metals, and asparagus stained them badly.) What is this country where you never eat anything by hand, but are required to eat asparagus that way?!
In many parts of the United States, for instance, it's okay to drink coffee with your meal. Elsewhere, that's taboo. In Italy, you never propose a toast with a glass of water. It brings bad luck. If you're dining with a devout Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, or Muslim, you must be aware of the strict dietary rules they were raised with.
The whole idea is to adjust to the culture you are in. Eating behaviors, although often complex, are really one of the simpler cultural interactions. But always remember. Everyone thinks they eat the "right" way - their mothers taught them how... So what is the right thing?
My golden rule is that whoever pays, or is the host, is the "leader". That person's behavior sets the pattern for all. Follow him or her and in their eyes you'll do it right!
Peter Urs Bender is one of Canada's most dynamic and entertaining business speakers. He lives and works out of Toronto. He is the author of four best-selling business books: Leadership from Within, Secrets of Power Presentations, Secrets of Power Marketing, Secrets of Face-to-Face Communication, and Gutfeeling.
To read excerpts from his books visit www.PeterUrsBender.com.