protocol and courtesy
We saved the best for last…
Prior to our departure for Paris, our instructor showed us a clip from a French morning talk show. In it, one of the young and irreverently casual hosts is filmed taking an etiquette class. Even before he enters the instructor’s apartment he commits a faux pas, and the miscues multiply as the show goes on, much to the viewers’ growing amusement. We too had a good laugh, and said we were interested in taking a courtesy & protocol class à la française.
What we did not expect, however, was to find ourselves late one morning standing in front of the very same door we had seen on the television show. The woman who opened it, we learned, was a baroness. Born into French high society, married for many years to an ambassador, and with a degree in anthropology to boot, she seems better-placed than just about anyone to teach the dying art of politesse. And Mme D’Angestein certainly has a passion for her craft, backed up by an annotated bibliography of some 500 volumes.
Because we only had three hours at our disposal, she barely scratched the surface of the elaborate societal rules that had been designed at the royal court at Versailles and which continue to be observed with various degrees of fidelity in certain haughty milieus. We did a handful of role plays, committing all sorts of missteps she giddily corrected along the way, but mostly she just talked our ears off, attempting to place the arcane system of politesse rules into its proper anthropological context and explaining why and how these customs evolved in the first place.
At its root, politesse is the art of conversation — conveying what one means in such a way as to make a point without offending. “My dear, are you ok? Would you like some water or, perhaps, a coke?” our hostess smiled pointedly when she glimpsed S nodding off during a particularly long-winded soliloquy on the influence of Greek philosophy in the development of 17th-century dialogue norms.
Don’t be banal. Avoid timidity and catastrophe in one’s speech. Steer clear of sports, fashion, and money as topics for conversation. Never ever say, “bon appétit!” — only peasants do that; dinner, after all, is for conversation and not eating. Don’t sign your emails with ‘sincerely’ unless you truly despise the person to whom you are writing. Learn the local customs for eye contact and physical greetings. Cultivate familiarity, but always use polite language, especially with one’s social inferiors. “True elegance lies in not overtly demonstrating power,” the baroness quipped — because as much as politesse is a conversational art form, it is also a way of balancing hierarchy with the ideal of equality.
The societal hierarchy devised by the French accorded women a higher rank than men, thus elevating the gender that had traditionally been powerless. “The Revolution was a grave regression for women’s equality,” our hostess lamented before turning to an illustrative example. “Let’s practice introductions,” she motioned to D, “I’m hosting a reception and you have just arrived. How do you introduce yourself?” D smiled, said hello and his name, and offered his hand. “Good handshake,” she remarked, “but don’t launch yourself at me.” Since women occupy the higher pedestal in the social order, it is on them to make the first move — to decide whether to greet their guests with kisses, hugs, handshakes, or no physical contact at all.
D made another etiquette error almost as soon as he had retaken his seat. The baroness offered everyone a drink and D failed to get up to accept his glass, which earned a reproachful comment. “I’m your hostess…” the baroness said, smiling, before coldly adding, “not your servant.” One of D’s colleagues failed to pick up on this rebuke, however, and also remained in his seat when the baroness turned to him. This time she drew back the glass when it was almost in his grasp, forcing him out of his seat to make her point.
Mme. D’Angestein offers the complete suite of etiquette training for those with substantial time and financial resources. She can teach one how to dress, how to speak, and — most importantly — how to conduct oneself at the dinner table. Just the latter would have required us to spend a full day with her, so instead we ended with some elocution exercises before bidding her adieu and receiving signed copies of her book on the way out.