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Gentry Magazine

An Ode to Grace, Civility and Good-Will

Incivility has been the talk of the town lately. Gentry spoke with experts on protocol and etiquette about the glories of age-old civility in an otherwise rapidly changing world.

Text by Karen O’Leary

Good manners and grace are always fragrant and in season-like a well tended garden. Kindness, respect, thoughtfulness and goodness are at the heart of true civility, and they reap a bountiful harvest.

      Eighty years ago, Emily Post said, “Good taste or bad is reflected in everything we do.”  That hasn’t changed throughout the century.

      How we treat our spouse, children, friends and co-workers; how we respond to stress, conflict and hurt feelings; and how we initiate care and concern for sick friends and people in need in our community-these are the domain of civility.

      Good manners are serene, cheerful, wise, generous, respectful and on time. They don’t cancel appointments when something more appealing comes along. They keep their sense of humor and transform difficult or awkward situations into opportunities for goodwill and stronger bonds with friends and acquaintances. 

      Condescension, impatience, insensitivity and chronic lateness are, on the other hand, disrespectful, inelegant and rude. Gos-siping, interrupting, multi-tasking in the midst of a conversation, neglecting to send thank-you notes, and speaking harshly to waiters and loudly on cell phones are examples of a false sense of self-importance, which is at the root of incivility.  

      When it comes to the dynamic rules of etiquette and the long-held traditions of protocol, experts agree that good manners are as much a matter of attitude as of mastering the technicalities.

      But comfort in the knowledge of proper introductions, protocol when meeting dignitaries, and civilized dining will take people far, say our experts. Remaining insecure about the rules can be detrimental to our business and social health.

Relative to Everything, Etiquette Rule #1 is Golden

The first rule of etiquette is the Golden Rule, according to Lisa Mirza Grotts, etiquette and protocol consultant and founder of The AML Group in San Francisco. “It’s very simple. Just as your mother and teachers told you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

      Kingsley Jack, an etiquette coach and event planner based in Palo Alto, concurs. “Treat one another with a lack of respect and that lack of respect will spread back to you,” says Jack.

      “Knowing the rules of etiquette is as important for business and social success as learning the rules of golf and tennis if one expects to compete,” says Mirza. “If you know the rules, you look forward to the game.

      “Etiquette is often labeled as ‘snobbery’ but actually snobbery is bad manners,” adds Mirza. “A well-mannered person always uses his or her knowledge to make others feel at ease.

      “Sixty percent of the largest technology companies in the world are located in Silicon Valley. There’s been a lot of talk about the sudden wealth syndrome and about 20-something millionaires.” Among Mirza’s clients are a number of young twenty- and thirty-somethings whose business sense is advanced far beyond their social sense. Characterizing scenarios she sees all too frequently, Mirza quotes Oscar Wilde, “The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork.”

      Continues Mirza, “I think some people actually sit down and say, ‘Who cares if I don’t know which fork to use?  I’m making ten million dollars. How much are you making?’”

      That etiquette does make a difference on the bottom line is a point Mirza frequently drives home on her web site and in her seminars. “Recently an executive recruiter told me about a brilliant, high-ranking manager who lost out on a lucrative new position because his table manners appalled the CEO at the prospective company,” says Mirza. “More business opportunities are lost to faux pas than many people realize.”

Grace On the Field and Off

Kingsley Jack doesn’t like the term ‘etiquette.’  She prefers to think of what she teaches as personal savvy.  “The image [of etiquette] is of an old bitty who is very strict.  Personal savvy is just helping you feel comfortable in any social situation.”

      Jack entered the game when Stanford University’s football coach, Tyrone Willingham, wanted some tutoring for his strapping young team. “He felt the young men were uncomfortable at donor receptions and sports banquets and wanted to give them confidence,” says Jack. “Tyrone comes from the south and he appreciates the value of social grace,” continues Jack.  “He wanted his kids to understand they’re ambassadors for themselves as well as for the university.”  After coaching the Stanford football team about etiquette, Jack began to teach small groups of girls and boys in her home. 

      One of Jack’s classes was given as a gift by Joan Ferrari to her granddaughter Alyssa and five friends. The fifth graders were already beautifully well-mannered and just needed a few tips and some reinforcement of what they had learned from their parents at home. Jack reminded the girls never to sit down or begin eating before the hostess does; she had them practice serving on the left and clearing on the right; and, during the meal, she encouraged the girls to participate in the art of lively conversation, focusing on drawing others out.

      But Jack also stressed that etiquette is concerned with learning to handle awkward situations gracefully more than it is with attaining perfection. In fact, she emphasizes that recovering from potentially embarrassing moments is a big part of good manners.

Testing Your E.Q

If some people are at first resistant to her seminars because they think it concerns proper tea and gloves, Mirza puts it into perspective for them by posing a few questions that test their etiquette quotient.

“True or False,” Mirza asks in a quiz. 

      Q. A proper introduction might be “Mr. Jones (CEO), I would like to present Mr. Smith (client).” 

      Q. In business settings, women should not extend a hand first. 

      Q. If a fork drops to the floor in a restaurant, one should quietly pick it up but use another utensil.

      Q. A waitress may be called “madam” but a waiter should never be called “sir.”

      “They’ll say, ‘Oh, so you’re not supposed to pick up a fork from the floor,’” says Mirza. “And then they want to know more.”

      Mirza gained her expertise in etiquette and protocol while working in San Francisco at the Mayor’s Office with Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, chief of Protocol for San Francisco. Mirza was also trained and certified in Washington, D.C., by the Lett Group.

      It was while she was director of protocol for San Francisco that Mirza learned first-hand that Prince Andrew of England was to be addressed as “Your Royal Highness.”  She also learned not to speak with royalty until spoken to.

     “I went for practically the whole weekend without speaking directly to Prince Andrew because he didn’t initiate the conversation,” says Mirza. “Towards the end, he was very friendly and informal.  He greeted me by my first name and invited me to visit when I was in England.”

High Tech, Low Touch

The trend towards informality, increased stress, and the isolating nature of communicating predominantly by phone and e-mail are among the reasons that both Mirza and Jack cite for declining manners.

      “We’re a world of strangers,” says Jack. “People are living behind the technology.  There’s the sense that if they don’t know you they don’t have to be respectful.

      “I grew up in the south in the fifties where manners were very important.  It was always taught in the home.  It didn’t matter to which socio-economic group one belonged. During that era, parents provided the social and moral education of their children. They understood that manners were a reflection of themselves and good manners were a sign of respect, education and upbringing.”

In Sync on Manners:  A Required Course for Parents and Schools

Good parenting is still responsible for children growing up with good manners. But a handful of the children Jack has coached are woefully ignorant, largely because all nannies and babysitters aren’t quite as rigorous as Mary Poppins when it comes to teaching their charge about manners.

      “When both parents are working, the kids are often raised by nannies who just don’t know the rules or who don’t care as much about whether the children learn them,” says Jack. “And two-career families aren’t eating together as often, so the children don’t tend to learn it from the parents.”

      “There was an article in The Wall Street Journal a while ago asking where all the manners have gone,” says Susie Walsh Tinsley, co-chair of Dreams Happen 2001, a bi-annual fundraising event, and the mother of four young boys.

      “The article said that manners these days are atrocious,” continues Tinsley. “My husband and I are real sticklers about it and it’s reinforced at St. Joseph’s School. I feel totally comfortable with my kids’ manners. They shake people’s hands and look them in the eye and always address them as Mr. or Mrs. 

      “I notice that kids don’t always say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ and ‘May I?’ And many of the kids boss people around-even adults!  They say things like ‘Make it faster!’  It really grates on me when kids don’t have manners, but it’s really not their fault if they haven’t been taught. Kindness, helping the elderly and handicapped across the street-those things are important,” adds Tinsley. “I tell my son Patrick, ‘The most important thing in your life is to be a thoughtful person.  After that it doesn’t matter what you choose to do.’”

      Judy Stikeleather of Palo Alto invests a lot of time volunteering at her children’s schools. Lately, she has noticed that children often bound right into ongoing conversations without apologizing or excusing themselves for the interruption.

      Alex, Stikeleather’s own daughter, however, is the picture of deference and good manners. Not only does she learn it at home, Alex attends Girls Middle School in Mountain View where classes on social and emotional learning teach students how to participate in active listening, how to tactfully and truthfully communicate diverse points of view, and how to handle stressful situations diplomatically.

      When Enrica Zappacosta of Atherton was asked if they teach etiquette at Sacred Heart Schools where her two children attend, she reports that they absolutely do, immediately making the connection between good manners and good character. 

      “The students learn to be compassionate for others and they also have a very strong emphasis on morals and character development,” says Zappacosta, director of Software Engineering of DigitalPersona. An example she cites is an assignment recently given to Christina, her 11-year-old daughter, to write a letter to a classmate who was in the hospital.

      “If you develop whole, caring people, by definition, they’re going to be polite,” says Michele Rench, the dean of Students at Sacred Heart. “Good manners are just a reflection of good character-the outside manifestation of the respect that’s on the inside. When people are rude, they’re telling you something not very flattering about themselves,” says Rench. “If a person is rude, then rudeness is at the core.”

The Kindness of Strangers

“Only the lowest type of boor is rude to or inconsiderate of the people who serve him in restaurants, stores or public places,” says Peggy Post in Emily Post’s Etiquette.

      “It can safely be said that this sort of discourtesy is a sure sign of insecurity,” Post writes. “Those who have self confidence do not need to act in that way in an effort to prove themselves superior.  Good manners and thoughtfulness are so much a part of their nature that they treat everyone with whom they come in contact with the same courtesy, whether there is anything to be gained or not,” writes Post.

      “At restaurants, I often observe how rude the customer is to the server-as if they don’t matter,” says Jack. “Money dictates, they believe.  It puts people in the subservient role and that drives me crazy. Some people, because they have lots of money, think rudeness is acceptable. I’m afraid that’s becoming more and more the case in Silicon Valley.”

Casual Could be Causal When it Comes to Slipshod Manners

“Informality has made us sloppy,” Jack believes. Cynthia Beeger, a Peninsula native, often went with her family to her great aunt’s home for formal Sunday dinners. And they always wore their church clothes. “We sat in the living room before dinner, talked with the grown-ups and politely listened to our aunt’s stories,” says Beeger. “We often heard the same stories over and over again, but never once would we say, ‘We’ve heard that one already, Aunt Trudy.’  We had a lot of respect for her.”

      “There was something about dressing up that put more focus on manners,” says Barbara Kanner, Beeger’s sister. “I’m amazed that even at weddings and bar mitzvahs, kids often don’t dress up anymore.  I think it makes a big difference in their behavior.”

Phone Etiquette and the Lack Thereof

“A number of people call on the phone saying only, ‘Hi.  It’s me,’ which really puts you on the spot. It takes me a few minutes to really discern who the person is,” says Beeger.

      Cell phones are probably the worst area of infringement when it comes to telephone manners. A professional woman based in Palo Alto reported that she had just been in the middle of a session with her psychiatrist when the cell phone rang. The psychiatrist took the call, chatted a few minutes, and returned to the patient without so much as an “excuse me.”

      “The rule about cell phones is that if you have a babysitter at home or an important call, put your phone on vibrate.  Don’t ever disturb other people. It’s rude,” says Mirza. “Whenever you’re with people, you always put your phone on vibrate because your attention should be on the person you’re with.”

      One of Mirza’s clients reported that he had a prospective employee in his office whose cell phone rang in the middle of the interview.  A little sarcastically, the client asked, “Did you want to get that?”  The 20-something interviewee replied in the affirmative. He was excused to take the call-and forever after.

The Art of Conversation: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

When it comes to conversation at dinner parties, it’s best to keep things light and positive, says Mirza. “A lot of people have a hard time talking to people at mixers. We talk about good and bad small talk at my seminars,” says Mirza. “Bad small talk is anything passionate, anything family related-divorce, I’m having a migraine, someone in my family has cancer. All these things are important, but in a social situation it could make the other person feel uncomfortable. You want to keep it light. One of the things Eleanor Roosevelt used to do was run down the ABC’s,” says Mirza. “She would start with the A’s and go through the alphabet until she found something that piqued someone’s interest. She would say, ‘How about those alfalfa crops this year?’ or ‘What about the baseball team?’” 

      “Showing interest in others is the key to conversational grace,” Kingsley Jack emphasizes. Drawing others out is one of the things she teaches her young charges.

      Conversational heroes are not only eagerly interested in others, they don’t partake in gossip, according to manners expert Letitia Baldrige. Spreading rumors or speaking ill about people is worse than bad manners. It has the power to defraud another’s otherwise good reputation. And more often than not, rumors are unfounded and fostered by someone with an agenda of their own. 

RSVP’s and Thank-Yous are Essential, Not Just Grace Notes

“I’m amazed at how many people don’t respond to RSVP’s, whether they’re going to attend or not,” says Susie Tinsley.

      Regarding RSVP’s and attendance, one is never obliged to say “yes” to any invitation, according to Emily Post.  But once a person agrees, they should hold fast to the appointment.  Canceling because a better offer has come along is a definite faux pas.

      “Regarding thank-you notes, the rule is 24 hours,” says Mirza, who is rigorous about this herself.  When she gave a party for her now-fiance, John, early in their relationship, she also gave him stationery and a data base of all the people who attended to make sure those thank-you’s were sent out. As it turned out, John was ahead of the game and had his own stationery. 

      “Capturing one’s feelings about the event or  the gift while it’s fresh in one’s mind is the only way to do it,” Mirza urges.  “People put in a lot of time preparing meals and finding presents, so a thank-you note is always in order.  And they’re such a delight to receive. I love getting notes from people!”

      “Balance in all human relationships-in business, personal and family-is what defines graciousness for me,” says a retired television executive. “And a solipsistic attitude-the sense that the self is the only existing thing-that’s what gripes me the most.”

      “The point is that information is power and etiquette is proper social behavior,” says Mirza. “It’s common courtesy and nothing more. You don’t have to wear white gloves. Whether it’s business or social, you just remember the Golden Rule.”

      Grace, in one of its many aspects, is defined as divine regeneration. In every realm of civility, the grace of good manners is indeed divine-a thing of beauty and a joy forever. 



The AML Group is certified by The Lett Group