Pop quiz: you're at a swanky dinner party with some very posh people. Sure, you're a bit out of your depth, but so far you've acquitted yourself admirably, using the correct knife and fork, engaging in sophisticated repartee with your dining companions. The evening is drawing to a close and, this being the sort of affair at which the pouring of the port signals the end of the meal, the bottle is proffered. Uh oh. You vaguely recall some arcane custom that dictates how port should be passed. Unfortunately, you have no clue what the rule is. Do you first serve the women, then the men? Do you pass the bottle to your left or to your right?
If you're spending time trying to impress the sort of people who care about issues like this, you might want to branch out a bit. Or maybe, just maybe, even in a world of casual business attire where everyone is instantly on a first-name basis, etiquette guidelines that many of us would dismiss as irrelevant behavioral artifacts still matter a lot. "If you don't know the rules you're thought of as someone who's not impressive," says Jacqueline Fraser, who runs the Manners etiquette school in London and poses the port-passing problem to assess her clients' social savvy. "You're constantly being judged, and if you're not impressive, you won't be put forward for the extras and for promotion." In today's multinational corporate environment, the potential for appearing unimpressive can lurk in the most unexpected situations. Yes, there are some fundamentals. It's probably safe to say that licking your plate clean or wiping your nose on your sleeve would elicit raised eyebrows in most places. But what counts as classy conduct in one country can come across as downright uncouth in another. And in a business context a simple etiquette blunder can translate into a lost deal.
Negotiating the perilous waters of protocol has never been easy. The term etiquette, French for label or ticket, derives from the written instructions newcomers to the French court were given in order to avoid committing a faux pas in the royal presence. As social rules become ever more lax, fewer people have the sort of ingrained familiarity with etiquette that was once taken for granted. On more formal occasions it can still be almost as difficult to figure out what is proper as it was for first-timers trying to make sense of Versailles's complicated code of conduct.
As a result, the modern equivalents of those 18th century cheat sheets are thriving. There's The Times Book of Modern Manners for the British, Le Guide du Bon Usage et du Savoir-Vivre for the French and Contessa Sibilla della Gherardesca's Non Si Dice "Piacere" for the Italians, to name just a few. In Poland, where the custom of kissing a woman's hand is still widespread, most magazines run a column on etiquette and manners, and numerous television and radio shows are devoted to the topic. Bogna Wernichowska, who writes an etiquette column for Section, the country's most popular illustrated weekly magazine, notes that the etiquette dilemmas with which Poles are preoccupied reflect how the country's priorities have changed in the decade since the end of communism. "One person asks on which hand he should wear a signet ring," she reports. "Another wants to know if it is acceptable, since he doesn't have his own coat of arms, for him to wear the crest of a more distant branch of the family."
While Poles grapple with such essentials of old-fashioned etiquette, they needn't necessarily look to their Western European counterparts for guidance. Della Gherardesca laments the decline in standards in the country that produced some of Europe's earliest etiquette treatises. "Italians travel a lot, they eat well and know all sorts of things about wine," she says, "but they still have not learned how to behave." She is appalled by contemporary table manners, and takes particular umbrage at the practice many people have of picking at their dining companions' food. "These days there is a predator at every table who goes hunting for a taste on the plates of others," she complains. A member of one of Florence's oldest aristocratic families, Della Gherardesca knows whereof she speaks. But to be fair, part of the predicament, not just for ill-mannered Italians, but for the rest of us well-traveled etiquette ignoramuses, may be a simple case of information overload.
Johannes von Thadden, director of bilateral affairs at the German Chambers of Commerce, recalls a high-level business dinner between German and French negotiating teams in Paris. Both delegations had attended workshops on manners and etiquette and sat down to dine and do business armed with their newly acquired expertise. The Germans resolutely refused to discuss business matters before coffee was served, having been instructed that such a thing was unheard of in France. The French did their utmost to accommodate what they had been told was the Teutonic preference for concluding business before coffee and dessert. With both sides operating at well-mannered cross-purposes, the entire affair was so awkward the deal nearly died.
"Problems can arise when you try to accommodate the other person too much," warns Von Thadden. But even worse than overaccommodation is a lack of appreciation of the importance of cultural differences. When German car giant Daimler-Benz and American automaker Chrysler merged in 1998, issues as deceptively trivial as which size business cards to use were the source of a great deal of cross-cultural tension.
Another set of etiquette dilemmas has arisen with the growing number of women in high-ranking business positions. While traditional rules dictate that men behave with a certain level of protective gallantry, such conduct is often unacceptable in a corporate context. For example, a male executive who has been invited to lunch by a female colleague should not automatically presume it is his responsibility to take charge of the wine list, since ordering wine is customarily the host's preserve. But Fraser cautions women against reacting with outraged indignation to chivalrous gestures like an opened door or a pulled-out chair. "What is the point of antagonizing someone you're trying to work with?" she asks. "The whole basis of manners is to make everyone feel comfortable."
A simple enough principle, perhaps, but one that the cacophony of modern life can complicate putting into practice. New technology poses daunting challenges to contemporary etiquette arbiters, with e-mail and mobile phone protocol provoking especially heated debate. While e-mail is acceptable for casual correspondence, most experts agree that it is not an appropriate medium for formal invitations or condolence messages, even if your computer allows you to write your messages in calligraphy with a thick black border. As for cell phones, Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners states authoritatively, "It is bad manners to engage in long and noisy conversations at a table or in a bar, bus or train, unless you want to be taken for an unsavory character." When dining out, Debrett's suggests leaving the mobile phone "switched on at the reception desk ... or with the headwaiter." That proposal has yet to catch on, and even if we do manage to arrive at some sort of social code to govern the use of cell phones, the relentless march of innovation ensures that there will be plenty more trouble where they came from. "New technologies make us rude, because it takes time to figure out the socially accepted ways to use them," says Paul Saffo, a director at California's Institute for the Future.
Meanwhile, low-tech etiquette continues to provide its own conundrums. In case you care — and by now you should — port should always be passed around the table clockwise, from right to left.
With reporting by Greg Burke/Rome, Tadeusz Kucharski/Warsaw and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin