Manners 101: Protocol and U.S. Representation Abroad

This past weekend Nate and I attended a day-long class on protocol and etiquette.  It was basically a crash-course on manners.  I thought I had good manners, but wow did I learn a lot.

The morning started out with a mock-cocktail party, and we each had a slip of paper with a name on it.  We had to find said person (by introducing ourselves to as many people as possible), learn something about them, and then introduce them to the “ambassador.”  After about 15 minutes of not finding my person, I asked Nate if he’d met the woman I was supposed to find.  It turned out he’d just met her.  Whew!

So I walked up to her and instead of saying “Hi, I’m Kathryn,” like a normal human being, I said “Hi, you’re my person.” Who does that?!

And I managed to approach her just as she’d taken a huge bite of food, which was awkward for both of us.  Lesson learned: always introduce yourself politely, and check to see if whoever you’re approaching has food in their mouth.

Here are some other things I learned during the class:

  • “Avoid the American huddle.” Let’s say you go to a cocktail party.  Do you wander around and talk to as many strangers as possible, or make a bee-line for your friends and hang out with them most of the night?  I find my friends.  It’s easy, if they’re my friends they’re probably awesome, I know I like them, we have lots to talk about, and I’m less likely to embarrass myself.  Apparently I need to work on being more of an extrovert.
  • “Surf, don’t scuba dive.” It turns out I’ve been eating soup improperly my whole life.  You are supposed to glide the spoon over the surface of the soup away from you.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t slurp or drink out of the bowl.
  • Seating charts are complicated.  Who is the guest of honor in terms of seating if there is actually no guest of honor? Exactly how long has each person/couple been in the country, and when did they receive their rank? These things all need to be considered. Also, never seat two people that are having an affair next to each other.
  • “Avoid appetizers that will complicate your life.”  Let’s say you eat a chicken wing or a shrimp at a cocktail party.  What are you going to do with the bones or tail?  What if your hands get really dirty?  It’s time to break that RPCV/poor grad student “Must Eat All The Food” mentality.
  • “Lower left, raise right.” Serve food (but not beverages) from the left side, and remove plates, etc from the right.  You are also supposed to enter your place at the table from the right, which only works in theory when everyone knows that they sit in their chair from the right.  Otherwise you’re all bumping butts.
  • You break it, you bought it.  Which is to say, don’t clink those $100 crystal glasses while toasting– you could be on the hook for the bill.  Oopsies!
  • Always hold wine glasses by the stem.  So they why would anyone invent stemless wine glasses?  To make those of us that own them look stupid?  I guess it’s time to invest in more grown-up wine glasses.
  • “Pick a dining style and commit.  Don’t switch when the going gets rough.” When dining with silverware (rather than your hands or chopsticks), it turns out that there are two dining styles: American and continental.  The American dining style involves cutting with your right hand, switching the utensils around and then eating with your right hand.  In the continental style, the knife stays in your right hand and the fork, which is turned with the tines facing down, stays in your left.  So you can’t cut the steak and eat it continental style and then eat the peas American style because you can’t manage to stab each and every god-forsaken pea with your fork.
  • The art of passing bread is extraordinarily complicated.  Like, so complicated we probably spent 15 minutes discussing it.  Basically, if the bread is near you, you can’t just take a piece of bread.  No, no.  You have to offer the bread to the person to your left, and then pray to god that they know that then it’s their turn to offer you the bread, which at this point you desperately want.  What if they don’t know that you only offered them bread because you really want it?  Well, then I have have no idea what you’re supposed to do.

I’ll admit that as the class progressed, I decided would be able to avoid most of the diplomatic protocol rigmarole by simply never hosting a fancy dinner party.  But when you think about it, that’s impossible (and silly).  When other people invite us to dinner parties, are we going to decline because god help us if we have to return the favor?

Upon further thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dhaka will be an good first post to get our diplomatic feet wet because we’ll be able to hire help for our dinner parties, rather than having to do it all ourselves.  Although we might have a few practice rounds while we’re still in DC.  Also, I realize that not every time we have people over will be a fancy-schmancy affair.  We are big fans of low-key entertaining.

Who wants to come over for dinner?!

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