It happens all too often to some of us. You know, that awkward moment when you forget someone’s name, or are completely clueless about knowing which utensil to use at a formal dinner, or even that uncomfortable attempt to make small talk with a VIP.
Just recently, someone who I completely didn’t recognise, asked me: “Remember me?”
The back of my throat started to dry up and I lost all ability to speak. I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because saying “No” would be discourteous but saying “Yes” would be asking for further embarrassment. The ensuing pause and panic felt like the longest two seconds of my life. To add fuel to the fire, it turned out that he was the contact I was supposed to meet that day, my client. The blank expression on my face probably gave me away and even when he offered his name, my mind frantically searched every corner for a memory till it forced the mouth to spurt out, “Oh, you look... different.” It was the best I could muster.
Now, if I’d received some etiquette training, I probably might have been able to better handle that or similar situations. The word ‘etiquette’ tends to bring to mind quaint lessons on which cutlery to use for which dish at posh dinners but the scope actually goes beyond mere table manners. There are a multitude of situations or social minefields that can be sources of potential embarrassment or disapproval, but if navigated properly, can lead to building a positive and respectful image for an individual or the company they represent.
“Social etiquette is a way of life. It’s about projecting your image and how you want others to see you,” says Tunku Dara Tunku Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Naquiah binti Almarhum Tuanku Ja’afar, a champion of personal etiquette in the country for many years. She adds: “Secondly, it’s to help climb up the social and corporate ladder, and thirdly, to give you confidence so you can handle any situation with ease.”
She still conducts private personal development courses on social etiquette, formal dining, Malaysian protocol and personal grooming. In fact, next month, she’ll be conducting a two-day programme titled Etiquette for Today aimed at those seeking to climb both the social and business ladders. During the course, participants can learn all about social finesse, which encompasses personal grooming and social behaviour, in addition to fine dining exposure which will cover table etiquette and how to be a gracious host or guest.
ETIQUETTE AND MANNERS
My parents would be proud to know that I’m doing justice to their decent upbringing in the presence of my regal interviewee. As expected, this well-known doyenne of Malaysian high society is perfectly groomed, a vision of professional sophistication in a smart trouser-suit accentuated with pearl accessories.
Her voice soft, she explains the significance of etiquette and how it differs from manners. “Manners are a code of what you should or shouldn’t do, but there’s no right or wrong with etiquette. For example, I’d say you should stand up when elders walk into the room, or offer your seat to them. But you don’t have to. And I’d say a gentleman will open the door for a lady. If you’re a man and you don’t want to, that’s fine. But if you do, you’re seen as a gentleman.”
Good manners are usually taught at a young age by parents such as learning not to stare at people, or not to interrupt someone’s conversation and simply saying “please” and “thank you”.
In Tunku Dara’s eyes, there has been a lapse in etiquette these days, especially among the youth. She laments over how people have become glued to devices. “Because of the digital age, I feel there’s still a strong need for social etiquette. I often see five people at a dinner table in a restaurant and they all have their phones, not talking to each other. For me, a handphone is a no-no at the dinner table. You can see a missed call, receive messages and if it’s really urgent, excuse yourself from the table to deal with it and come back.”
HOUSEWIVES TO LEADERS
Decorum isn’t just for diplomats or royalty. Tunku Dara encourages white collar workers such as departmental heads and public relations practitioners to attend as their work often involves organising events and dealing with VIPs. Housewives will benefit too, she adds, as some need to attend functions with their husbands or entertain guests at home. Surprisingly, she also thinks that top corporate leaders could do with training or at least should send their personal assistants. “Have you seen how some of them would leave a function halfway through or talk on their phone at inappropriate times? That’s not good.”
Nodding, I remark that since they’re already successful, perhaps they don’t see the need to bother much with etiquette. “But they forget that others will judge them,” cautions Tunku Dara softly, before adding: “People will talk.”
Those with a more nonchalant attitude would probably shrug it off and not be too bothered. American journalist, Judith Martin, who turned into a famous etiquette authority known by the pen name Miss Manners, explained the importance in simple terms during a 1995 interview: “You can deny all you want that there’s etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you’re trying to deal with, they’ll stop dealing with you.”
Surely no sophisticated professional or forward-thinker would want to be considered rude, so being equipped with social niceties, like proper conduct at functions or knowing when you can or cannot eat with your fingers, can help one avoid being perceived as semi-Neanderthal.
Societal savoir-faire came naturally to Tunku Dara, the eldest child of Almarhum Tuanku Ja’afar ibni Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the 10th Ruler of Negeri Sembilan. Apart from the palace, her exposure to etiquette also came from being a diplomat’s daughter. In her younger years, her father’s job took her and the family to London where she had to mingle with top Malaysian officials while enjoying the delights of refined English culture. There was so much to learn from observing her parents and others. “I opened my eyes and saw what others were doing. I knew there’d be more entertaining when I grew older.”
The ultimate test of decorum must be to have tea with a British Queen. In 1995, Tunku Dara had that opportunity when her father, who was the 10th Yang di-Pertuan Agong at that time, was granted a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, along with his family.
“The butler made the tea and put it on the table but she poured the tea herself and passed it down for us at the dining table,” she recollects. A sudden curiosity makes me blurt out and ask, “Did she drink with her pinkie finger extended?” A smile and Tunku Dara replies: “You’re not allowed to drink with a pinkie like that, it’s bad manners. You hold it properly.” Oh. Good thing my pinkie was tucked in while sipping my Rose English Breakfast earlier.
Sharing another memory from that day, she reveals: “My sister tried to make conversation with the Queen by asking her about her children. The Queen replied, “Oh, they’re not children anymore, they’re very big now!” My sister was so shocked that she didn’t speak anymore after that!” recalls Tunku Dara with a laugh before adding: “She thought she’d offended the Queen!”
Interacting with others successfully in a social or professional setting seems pretty necessary if you want to build relationships, project a positive personal image or hope to be invited for tea with royalty. Because as it stands, most of us don’t live in isolation.
As Judith Martin (a.k.a Miss Manners) puts it: “Etiquette is all human social behaviour. If you’re a hermit on a mountain, you don’t have to worry about etiquette; if somebody comes up the mountain, then you’ve got a problem. It matters because we want to live in reasonably harmonious communities.”
ETIQUETTE FOR TODAY
Workshop dates: Saturday Aug 26 and Sunday Aug 27
Where: Sime Darby Convention Centre
Cost: RM950 per person (Early bird price RM850 per person)
For registration & queries contact: Thecirclekl@gmail.com