Home The Washington Diplomat May 2008 Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement


Protocol Instruction Pulls Together Finer Points of Global Diplomacy

In the BlackBerry era, old customs and rules of etiquette may seem dated or even obsolete. But a growing need to understand protocol (Greek for “first glue”) in conducting international business has increased the demand for instruction on cultivating superior social graces both at home and abroad.

The Glue for Sticky Situations Shelby Scarbrough, founder of Practical Protocol in Alexandria, Va., was baptized into protocol as a trip coordinator for President Ronald Reagan. She stressed that protocol is not about creating rules people will accidentally break and therefore be embarrassed by. “It’s about the bond, the relationship,” said Scarbrough, who teaches corporate and high net-worth individuals on conducting business abroad. “Many in this industry are sticklers for ‘the rules,’ but they’re really traditions which can evolve and change. The point is to create a relationship, not a barrier.”

Yet John Crawford Howell, vice president of the International Association of Protocol Consultants, said we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss some of those old rules of conduct, arguing that they can help the socially awkward succeed in every conceivable social setting. “To know the rules is to build the confidence and knowledge that one can flow with ease and grace from small talk to receiving line to evening’s ‘adieu,’” he said.

As an example, Howell advised that when hosting a guest from China, at a minimum greet him or her in Chinese and know who Hu Jintao (the president) is. Such behavior is likely to be more successful than the American businessman in Hong Kong pictured in a recent television commercial who greets his Chinese host with a botched Mandarin greeting of “Hello, stinky fish face.”

Pamela Eyring, director of the Protocol School of Washington, recalled an example of one success story where language removed a cultural barrier: The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution learned just enough Swahili to greet the first lady of Tanzania in her own language, instantly impressing her. “I believe it is all about how you make people feel,” said Eyring. “The secretary showed respect and honor to her country, which started a positive relationship.”

And building those types of positive relationships can be key to restoring America’s tarnished image abroad since the Iraq war. “Especially today, when America’s global image has faltered, the role of protocol officers is not just important, it’s essential,” according to Eyring. “These people are America’s frontline, goodwill ambassadors who daily represent the U.S.”

Taking Off the Gloves Scarbrough emphasized the importance of differentiating between protocol and etiquette. While protocol involves matters ranging from where to seat VIPs at a high-profile event to who should be invited in the first place, etiquette is more narrowly focused, yet often crucial to how behavior is perceived.

One example is the 2005 controversy over President Bush’s failure to remove his gloves when he shook hands with the president of the Slovak Republic. The etiquette breach quickly overshadowed the larger fact that Bush was the first American president to visit Slovakia since it gained independence.

Scarbrough also advises her clients to beware of their own body language flubs. “Don’t gesture if you don’t really know what it means and keep your knees together and feet on the ground,” she said, using the example of how showing the sole of your foot in the Middle East is an insult.

Scarbrough said there is “still a lot of mystery” on this entire subject that people need help to understand. She recalled with some amazement a law firm that wanted to expand into China and asked for a full briefing on the country in 75 minutes.

Scarbrough made do, arranging a lunch of the “really slippery food” that the firm’s lawyers would have to master in China and providing tutorials on Chinese gift-giving and toasting customs. For such clients, Scarbrough offers “protocol in a box,” quick consultations when questions emerge and time is short for answers.

Eyring agreed that even in a fast-pace business environment, too much focus on speed can be self-defeating. “More people communicate today by e-mail, cell, [instant messaging] and text messaging, and when they have to communicate face to face they fumble,” she said, attributing this to a lack of “protocol intelligence.”

“The relentless need for speed demonstrates how our opposable thumbs work really well when texting, but relegate face-to-face and voice-to-voice interaction to the sociological dustbin,” added Howell.

Howell lamented that as a result, the protocol industry sometime seems to be “in a reactive mode,” reduced to devising rules of behavior for using modern communications devices such as Bluetooth wireless headsets. “The timeless principles of protocol must continue to be taught, since one never knows when the need for them will arise,” argued Howell. “An inopportune blush will confirm a missed lesson.”

Scarbrough recalled one such missed lesson with horror. She took a group of Muslim businessmen from Indonesia to a U.S. company, which proceeded to lay out a deli meat spread. Scarbrough finessed their gaffe by delicately pointing out the pork products to the Muslims so that they would not consume them (pork is forbidden by Islam), but the damage was already done: The Indonesians took their business elsewhere.

Beware of Large Gifts Scarbrough said that although plenty of protocol and etiquette information is available on the Internet, instruction such as her in-person sessions is far more reliable. “You can find the what, but I teach the why,” she said, noting that such explanations as to the method behind certain manners can help the knowledge stick.

As an example, Scarbrough cited the Japanese emphasis on a gift’s significance and presentation over its size or value. The reason? Presents in Japan can’t be big because of most people’s tight living conditions.

Scarbrough also advised care in the verbal wrapping of your message. She cited one American who, in making a presentation to a Japanese audience, used the phrase “plant the flag” to express the idea of entering a new market. “Did you ever hear of Iwo Jima?” Scarbrough asked him incredulously. But she added that despite such flubs, more Americans are starting to understand the need for cultural literacy, and that “there’s a newfound respect for this industry.”

Indeed, Eyring noted increased demand for her company’s services amid mounting complaints about poor appearance and behavior among younger workers, whose informal communications style often results in embarrassment for their employers.

She counts such local corporate heavyweights as Lockheed Martin among her clientele. American government agencies including the FBI, NASA and the Federal Reserve Bank are also asking for help, although Eyring acknowledged that getting some of her own high-flying students to buy into protocol’s importance can be a challenge. “Some days our graduates feel they are rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” Eyring admitted.

The Protocol School of Washington (PSOW), which graduates more than 100 protocol officers a year, is building an international protocol course focused on cross-cultural expectations and misunderstandings, and it also plans to offer courses this fall on business etiquette and entertaining through a new e-learning division.

Eyring reported a rise in students from the Middle East, China and Europe attending her school, increasing from one to two foreign students per class in previous years to six to eight now. Notable graduates include protocol leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

A World of Three A common tool that all three protocol experts use is breaking down the daunting variety of world cultures into three categories, which helps students understand “not so much the dos and taboos, but understanding what [the cultures] value—how they view family and social structure such as conformity, time and independence,” Eyring explained.

The first group is cultures based on family and tribal bonds, which are common in the Middle East, Latin America and some European countries. Eyring said that people in such cultures connect to the past through ancestors and to the future through children.

Second are societal cultures such as Asian countries that place a high emphasis on conformity and the group over the individual. “In these cultures, to single out an individual for praise will actually shame them, not honor them,” Scarbrough warned.

The third group (including the United States, Australia and certain European countries such as Germany) value independence and freedom, with reliance on institutions generally viewed as weak.

According to Eyring, the Middle East represents the most challenging culture for Americans to interact with. “You must understand their religion and history to understand their culture and the similarities and differences between ours,” she said. “Americans can be fearful of things they don’t know about or understand.”

Scarbrough pointed out that many countries are actually a blend of cultures, such as Indonesia’s mix of tribal and societal influences. She saw such “overlays” during a recently concluded world tour that included stops in South America and India, where she noted overlays of tribal attitudes on business practices.

Although this system of “threes” can help frequent travelers from diversity overload, Scar-brough cautioned against generalizing too much. “Globalization really means understanding things locally, to reach into another culture and show respect,” she said. “America’s melting pot culture creates communications breakdowns when people don’t try to understand [cultural] differences.”

“To lump even a region together is dangerous,” Howell agreed. “That there are no shortcuts compels us to do some homework. As a guest it is essential to know something about the history of the country — its taboos, the meaning of colors, phobias and symbols.”

He advised that in addition to learning key phrases in the native language, especially “I’m sorry,” one should study a country’s toasting rituals, gestures and gift-giving norms. “It’s all about smart business and staying afloat on the cultural seas.”

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.