There is a growing need for lessons on how to behave properly in both formal and casual situations, and from the science of human development there has sprung a tool to help people do just that – namely, the art of good behaviour. This is according to etiquette and protocol trainer Hadeer Hussein.
“I graduated from the Faculty of Art Education and then worked in the field of project administration until 2003. But I had always been interested in etiquette and had taken courses in the field,” Hussein said, adding that she was also herself brought up according to the rules of etiquette. “Then I got engaged to a diplomat, and so I had to learn more about etiquette,” she added.
“After about a year and a half, I left my job for familial reasons and decided to teach others etiquette through my Facebook page instead,” she said, adding that she had been encouraged by her successful experience abroad.
“I first started posting etiquette tips on my personal page, and after I got positive feedback from my acquaintances, I established my own etiqette wa anaqat al-tasarrof (etiquette and graceful behaviour) page,” Hussein said. She is also now a relationships consultant who lectures at prominent venues in Egypt.
“Social etiquette in general means respectful and sensible action,” she said. “A human being has a tendency to act respectfully and considerately, and if he does he is always happy to be appreciated and valued by others. People need the art of behaviour in every aspect of their lives, at work, while dealing with friends or family members, or when travelling. People need to be able to behave well when they have to use an open buffet, for instance at a wedding or a reception, or even when interviewing an employee to be in their company. All these situations need etiquette.”
“Etiquette differs from protocol, however. The first is concerned with the social realm, while the second is related to diplomacy and is a set of rules that should be followed strictly or else there could be a diplomatic crisis. However, they have some aspects in common, like people valuing and respecting each other and wanting to appear in a suitable state,” Hussein commented.
She said the main aims of the art of behaviour is maintaining good relations between people, improving these, and focusing on the value of a person. If a person knows the basics of etiquette, he will be able to talk or debate properly if his opinion differs from that of others.
“If I am in a gathering with people that I am meeting for the first time, I would know what to say and what not to say, or in an interview what questions to ask and what not to ask. This all makes a person acceptable to others and pleasant to talk to. It also decreases conflicts and increases a person’s self-confidence,” she added.
The art of behaviour has many branches. “There is body language, the culture of disagreeing with other people, appearance etiquette (wearing the right clothes on the right occasion), and the rules that you abide by when eating at a business dinner or at a hotel or on an airplane for instance. All these things are daily exchanges governed by proper behaviour,” Hussein said.
She said that etiquette branched long ago from the concepts that religions teach about proper behaviour, especially in Islam through the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) and in many Quranic verses about topics like table conduct. Muslims are instructed to eat using their right hand and to eat what is before them, which is what etiquette also teaches people to do. Other habits Islam teaches are asking for permission before visiting someone and the special care given to cleanliness and appearance.
“In the past, families would teach their children what is called conduct, like how to sit and how to chew food without opening their mouths or to not disrespect elders. These are all aspects etiquette also deals with. France was the first country to name such behavioural rules as etiquette, including in it which customs, traditions, and conduct that parents teach their children, and some religious teachings. But the rules existed long before the French named or compiled them,” Hussein said.
DEVELOPMENT: According to Hussein, etiquette is a tool of human development since the latter is all about developing a person to deal with others without problems and the former also teaches him how to behave and interact with others.
She has the impression that some people think etiquette is something binding or that it is only for the elite, but from her travel experience she has seen that people want to learn etiquette and are looking out for a simple method to do so.
“For this reason, I choose subjects that are close to people’s daily lives or their preferences. It is important to simplify information so that people learn it – as this is what etiquette is all about,” she said.
“For instance, I tell people to put an unopened water bottle on their dinner table for their guests, so that the guests don’t feel that someone has drunk from it beforehand. They can also put the water in a jug. I don’t just talk about how to arrange a dinner table according to the rules of etiquette. I give them the information they need when they have guests,” she added.
Some people tend to miss out the main point of etiquette, especially when it comes to their appearances. For instance, some people think they are applying the rules of etiquette simply because they are wearing designer clothes and judge others according to this criterion. However, this is not etiquette – people should wear what they can afford and what suits them and wear it in harmony with other pieces.
Some people turn up at other people’s houses suddenly for iftar at dusk in Ramadan, which may cause embarrassment as there may not be enough food for the unexpected guests. People should always say they are coming in advance, even if it is a relative they intend to visit. Some people come late for appointments, which gives a bad impression to the person waiting for them. Some people ask embarrassing questions, or don’t give others the chance to speak during a conversation because they think they know better.
“All these are things that we may mistake as etiquette, but they also cause communication problems with other people,” commented Hussein.
She also has some tips to master the art of behaviour.
When drinking a hot beverage, never blow it cold but wait for it to cool down a little. Ladies should wipe their lipstick off before drinking. If the table is low, hold both the cup of coffee and the saucer in your hand. If it is high, only hold the cup.
When receiving visitors at home, you should not let them wait for long. You should also have everything ready for hosting them. Always smile and never complain about their children and have special food and a table set out for them. Escort guests to the door when they are leaving. If they give you a present, it is acceptable to open it in front of them, if there are a few guests, and you must look happy even if you don’t like it. If there are many guests with presents, open their presents later and then thank each one by phone. If the present is a cake or something to eat, you should serve some of it.
If you are a guest, you should arrive about 10 minutes after your visit is scheduled. Stay where you are told to sit. Never just move around. Tell your children to do the same and that they should eat a limited amount of any item presented to them.
Body language is very important for people meeting for the first time, especially for a job or on an outing. We should use it efficiently because it gives the first impression about us. If you don’t master and have a proper appearance and proper manner of speech, people may get the wrong impression about you. The first impression stays.
It is not acceptable to call people on their mobile phones who may be busy or not in the mood to talk when you are calling them. You should wait for half an hour and call them again or text them and tell them that you would like them to call you when they can. If you are talking to someone you don’t know, you should first send them a message asking for an appointment to call them. It is not appropriate to use your phone when you have company.
When lining up for an open buffet, you should not take another person’s turn. Always start from the clean plates area. Never use two plates at once. Only take the food you can eat, because a pile of food left on your plate is never pleasant.
If you are eating one type of food but want to get another, you should never take the plate you were eating from to the buffet. Instead, get a new one. If you have children, teach them to take only the food they can eat so they don’t waste food. If there is an elderly person at your table, you could go and get them the food they want before getting your own or ask the waiter for help.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.