Interviewed by blogger and jet setter, Ava Pierce at www.avapierce.com
What inspired you to start The Protocol School of Palm Beach?
For almost six years, I was the assistant director of public relations for The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. While there, I was responsible for promoting the hotel’s special events…one being the Annual Etiquette Camp for Children and Adults. In 1994, I decided to participate in the Etiquette Camp for Adults and I absolutely loved it! The instructor recommended that I take her “train-the-trainer” course in Washington, D.C. so I could receive a certification and eventually teach etiquette to others and eventually start my own etiquette business if I ever wanted to. In 1995, I followed her advice and attended her school and started teaching classes to the hotel staff in my spare time. As fate would have it, my job was eliminated in August 1998 and I immediately started my business. I took my severance pay and purchased a computer, printer and fax machine and my husband and I converted our tiny attic into an office.
In your experience, what is the most common etiquette mistake made in social situations?
It’s amazing how many people talk and text on their cell phones while still trying to have a conversation with another person.
How did we end up on Planet Rude and when is the mothership coming back for us?
I am an optimist so I believe that people are inherently good…they just don’t get any credit for it. The media also places more emphasis on wrongdoings. That’s why it seems that our society is becoming ruder by the day. I also think that some people simply don’t know any better and don’t realize that they are being rude. After all, not everyone reads etiquette books or grows up learning proper manners. In my opinion, there are many factors responsible for the decline in civility and manners.
First, we have lost a sense of “community” that was once experienced by our parents and grandparents. We don’t talk to our neighbors anymore. We don’t work for the same company as long as our parents or grandparents did. We tend to relocate more frequently. We don’t sit down as a family at the dinner table anymore. Fast food has become the norm. We have isolated ourselves, using technology as a barrier or a safety net. People will often say things on the Internet that they would never say to someone’s face.
People are overworked, overstressed, sleep deprived and always in a hurry. This causes people to lash out. Long gone are the days where you can pick up the phone to call customer service and get a live voice. Where is the service in that? I could go on and on.
What’s the most fun part of your work?
I love having my own business for many reasons but the main reason is it affords me the flexibility to work at home and work as many hours that I want to work. As a result, I can spend more time with my family and friends.
I love every aspect of my business – writing, speaking, researching, product development, sales and yes, even accounting. I am an actor at heart and love being on stage. I love making an impact on other people’s lives. My work doesn’t feel like work to me. I look forward to each new day. I am truly living my passion!
You’ve met countless celebrities and dignitaries. For jet-setters-in-training who are gradually moving into more exclusive circles, what is appropriate behavior when meeting celebrities and dignitaries (assuming that we can remain conscious and don’t lose our sense of speech)?
Before I became an etiquette expert, I always thought celebrities and dignitaries were bigger than life, untouchable and were not like you and me. Quite the contrary. Celebrities and dignitaries are just ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. They are just like you and me. They just have bigger houses, drive bigger cars, have a bigger bank accounts and have bigger problems. They work all the time and most have reached the pinnacle of their success as a result of working extremely hard and making sacrifices that the ordinary person wouldn’t make. Their “real” friends are few and far between.
I find it’s easier to approach a famous person if you ask someone of importance to introduce you. That person is called a “connector.” You will be viewed as more important if someone the celebrity knows or trusts introduces you. When I was researching famous people to endorse my book, “Business Class,” I did not approach them directly. I found someone who knew them personally and asked that person to make the introduction for me. It was much easier getting an endorsement by using that approach. And once I got one famous person to endorse my book, I used their name to get the second, third and forth endorsement.
What is the best way to handle rude or snobbish people without unleashing one’s inner bitch?
First, you don’t want to give that rude or snobbish person more power by fighting fire with fire. My mother always said, “Killem’ with kindness.” This is easier said than done for most of us. For example if I am at a check-out line in the grocery store and the cashier doesn’t say hello or look me in the eye, I will oftentimes look at her nametag, greet her by name and ask her about her day. This simple technique will usually break the ice. Keep in mind that you may be the only person who was nice to that cashier all day because you took the time and made the effort.
I’m absolutely terrible with small talk. Do you have a suggestion for making great conversation with new people?
Just last night I attended a birthday party for my friend, Donny. After getting a drink, I sat down at a table with a group of strangers. As soon as I sat down, I smiled and said hello and introduced myself to every person at the table. In turn, each person smiled and introduced themselves. Before I could utter another word the woman next to me asked, “How do you know Donny?” This was an instant ice breaker! Everyone in the room had one thing in common…we were all there to celebrate our friend’s birthday. In short, it’s very easy to start a conversation when you have something in common with another person. If you don’t know what you have in common, you’ve got to ask the right questions and find a commonality. That means you ask a few good opening questions and then shut up. In other words, when you’re listening, you’re learning about someone else. When you’re talking, you’re not learning a thing.
If someone is invited to a major event, such as a ball or high-profile awards ceremony, but they’re on a limited budget, what would you suggest as appropriate attire to make a good impression?
I love to shop at consignment stores because I can always find a great outfit at an affordable price. Or if you have a friend with great taste who is your same size, ask to borrow an outfit from them as long as you pay for the dry cleaning bill. If neither one of these suggestions work for you, go out and buy a basic black suit. No need to spend a lot of money. Pair it with a colorful silk blouse and add fun, funky or elegant accessories. Get over the fact that everyone is going to scrutinize your outfit (unless you’re going to be presenting or receiving an award). Most people won’t remember what you wear but they WILL remember the wonderful conversation they had with you!
What’s your favorite travel destination and why?
This is a tough question because I can always find something wonderful to do wherever I travel. I meet more people when I travel by myself. It forces me to ask questions and make friends with strangers. Aside from that, I have to say that one of my most memorable trips was when my husband and I went to Greece on our honeymoon in 1998. Santorini is one of the most beautiful and romantic places on earth! I love the food and the culture. I especially like the fact that no one seems to be in a hurry.
July is National Cellphone Courtesy Month. What should everyone do to be more considerate of others?
I founded National Cellphone Courtesy Month in 2002 in an effort to help teach people how to be more courteous while talking on their cellphones.