Namaskar Y'all - 2017

Etiquette, Vetiquette

By Shyama Parui

Here I am sitting in a shaded spot of the Biltmore Estate grounds. Simply put, the weather is perfect. I see young couples holding hands, hear sounds of children squealing as they stomp grapes, and listen to the chatter of old friends catching up. My family leaves me to my solitude as they explore the vast expanse of the property on their bikes. Drawn to its elegant structure, my eyes trace the outline of the massive house. My imagination gets the better of me and I picture myself sitting at an elegant dinner at the house in the late 1890's. In my mind, I am impressed by the exquisite decorations and fine foods, but at the sight of the numerous pieces of silverware, I am befuddled. Jolted back to reality, I become acutely aware that I would be ignorant of dinnertime etiquette of a bygone era, and therefore, a complete misfit.

Frankly speaking, my knowledge of etiquette, vetiquette is far from complete. In the past, traditional cultures held on to their iron clad rules of do's and don'ts making it difficult for individuals outside that particular class or caste to penetrate their circle. Today, however, stuffy traditions of the yesteryears are not the norm and most people around me seem to prefer a casual lifestyle. On a recent cruise, I noticed that many individuals chose to reject the formal dress code in the fine dining areas and, yet, they were just as welcome. A couple of decades ago, that would have raised eyebrows.

Not to say that expectations of certain etiquette are obsolete, some rules of conduct in business and social interactions can go a long way in making life pleasant. We have all been witness to individuals blatantly disregarding expectations of decent social behavior, even though they are perfectly capable. As children, they probably ignored their teacher's lectures on the topic of “good manners" and “school decorum." This is not the middle-aged know it all who talks incessantly, simply because he enjoys the sound of his own voice. That person is beyond coaching and is best ignored. Or the toddler who screams on a plane for she does not know better and is completely forgivable. I am referring to the ones who choose to ignore etiquette.

In the world of work, propriety matters because it could cost you your client or job. In fact, one could earn a living out of training others and demystifying the written and unwritten rules of business etiquette. It seems like a lucrative idea given the lack of awareness of how your demeanor hinders others from meeting their deadlines. With the decline of corner offices and a move towards a more open workspace, cubicles emerged. While these cubes allowed one to immediately reach out to a colleague, it also permitted nosy co-workers to overhear everything you discussed. It made you acutely aware of the bad habits of team members, who among other things, participated in conference calls on the speakerphone. That's when people realized that noise cancellation devices are not just helpful for air travel. Expensive, day-long workshops on protocol around work communication, meetings, and presentations are widely attended, yet quickly forgotten.

Let's move on to a more informal scenario of a dinner party hosted by you. Do you have a pet peeve about guests? Or a favorite custom that you wish everyone would follow? As fun as it is to host a dinner party, it can be mindboggling. For example, if the party is in honor of your child's birthday, whom do you invite? Your friends or your child's friends? In India, the approach is to be as inclusive as possible but the American tradition is to keep it small. The last thing you want is to leave someone out, who feels snubbed or holds a grudge against you for forgetting them. Depending on the guest list, what kind of food do you prepare? Indian, American or both? We grew up with the belief, “atithi devo bhava" which means, “guest is god." So, when we had unexpected guests at my child's birthday party, three years in a row, we grinned and thought, “the more the merrier." Consequently, our expectations of hospitality are very high.

As I've confessed before, I am a digital immigrant and even before I attempt to learn the practices of an internet based society, I can sense that it is untethered by norms. There is no dearth of online gurus meditating under virtual trees, listing guidelines on how to attain social media nirvana. The question remains; is anyone paying attention? Despite their many pitfalls, the internet and social media are dependent on human behavior. Ultimately, each individual has to make the decent choice.

My goal is not to offer etiquette advice. The Emily Posts of the world are more qualified to do that. However, as we rejoice this festive season, I am going to propose these four simple rules to our family of four, so that we can make good choices and also, save ourselves from embarrassment.

1) Honesty is still the best policy. If you cannot make it, don't reply “yes" to the R.S.V.P. It's a terrible idea to come up with a flimsy excuse just because you are feeling lazy to attend or something better came along.

2) If you have nothing nice to say, be quiet. For our family, that means:

a. Don't be rude.
b. No personal questions.
c. Do not share more than you need to – online or offline.
d. Avoid critical or mean remarks.

3) Invite joy, share joy. Think of people who make you happy. When you have the opportunity, invite them to be a part of a celebration. When others include you, make others smile and be generous in your praise.

4) Be pleasant and use your manners. What you learned in kindergarten still applies. And please, find a napkin to wipe your fingers and then find a bin to dispose the napkin.

Hope you and your families have a happy and prosperous Deepavali.