“Be cosmopolitan!” That’s what my dad used to say to me during our travels when I was a child. This meant I should make the effort to learn and respect the customs and behaviors of all cultures, in order to be kind.
As an etiquette instructor, I’ve always told people that “your mother was right.” Whatever she taught you about manners in childhood was correct. Under the watchful eye of our own mother, my younger sisters and I “practiced” our table manners daily.
We might zig when we should have zagged–at times, we struggled to hold our knives and forks properly. And it’s hard for little girls to make pleasant conversation rather than simply giggling. But, we were learning and we tried.
As the eldest, my parents told me that when my manners were good enough, I would get a new dress and the three of us would go for dinner at the Pump Room, at the time a fancy spot in Chicago. I could demonstrate my good manners—strut my stuff.
What an incentive to learn! I fondly remember walking into that lovely restaurant in my new dress. I was on my best behavior and used the utensils like a little pro. I learned how to send signals to the wait staff without saying a word—the position of my knife and fork could tell them if I was resting or finished eating. I was in the world of social codes, and I spoke the language, even when it was unspoken.
It wasn’t long until my travels with my dad showed me that’s not always enough!
When I was studying etiquette in London, one part of the course was a test to correctly identify utensils and their purpose. This was particularly difficult because there are so many different types for forks, each for a very specific function. Dinner forks. Salad forks. Fish forks. Oyster forks. Dessert forks.
By learning a fork’s purpose you will never question which fork, when?
But, what if you’re never given a fork to begin with?
As a young teen, I accompanied my dad to dinner with his colleagues in Tokyo, where I learned that not all cultures would be so impressed with my skills with a knife and fork. In front of me lay only chopsticks and a lovely, porcelain spoon.
I had been exposed to chopsticks before, but my skills were weak and I barely got through dinner.
It was a great introduction into understanding the value of social codes, including those different from your own. It could have been an embarrassing situation, but I knew better than to ask for a knife and fork. Incidentally, I became a whole lot better with chopsticks!
It was then that I realized social codes were a key to opportunities, a “passport” to success. Where else would these skills take me? A passion was born!
Learning through travel was an integral part of my upbringing. Being exposed to myriad cultures and customs continued into my career as a grain trader, through travel and dealings across the globe. I added more stamps and social codes to my passport.
Each one excited me, not just for the code itself but for the history behind it. Where it came from, how it was passed down through different centuries and cultures, to become the code we know it as today. I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the world of etiquette and protocol full-time.
My first step was to study in Belgium to gain a Masters in International Protocol and Diplomacy, which was a wonderful experience. I learned as much from my fellow students, who came from over 20 countries, as I did in class. I went to London to study International Etiquette, followed by enrolling in Executive courses at Kellogg and Harvard. Despite earning multiple degrees, certificates and accreditations, I still look for classes to take somewhere on the planet to appease my insatiable curiosity and desire to learn.
All that education has shown me that some of what is presented as “etiquette” today is really quite antiquated. Much of the information is downright old fashioned.
That’s not ideal, because etiquette and protocols are needed more than ever. Having an understanding of the history of social codes and respecting the traditions does not need to be in conflict with social codes evolving in today’s world.
It is imperative to be able to differentiate between simply out-dated social codes and those that merely need to be updated. In some cases, we need to write our own, new social codes for things that didn’t exist a century ago, a decade ago or maybe even a year ago.
It’s not possible to do that without knowing the history, having the expertise and using common sense and sensibilities to make social codes part of the way we live today.
At its core, etiquette is about being respectful and kind. That always has been and always will be relevant.
This article was originally published in January 2020 on HeidiDulebohn.com.