The Slovenia Times

Protocol Predicaments



Presidency, these dedicated man and women are in the front line of international diplomacy: researching, advising, deploying red carpets, and - occasionally - soothing the ruffled feathers of these birds of passage.

If a visiting minister from Lithuania finds himself in a car flying the Latvian flag - offence will be taken and red faces guaranteed. If, at a dinner, the wife of a Portuguese plenipotentiary is seated inappropriately for her status, eyebrows are raised and the Protocol Department receives a stern note.

For reasons which space does not allow me to explore, politicians (and their partners) are especially sensitive about status and precedence. To you and me, it may seem irrelevant if a minister enters a room before an ambassador or after a bishop. But, believe me, it matters to the dignitaries involved - who will be well aware of the correct order of march.

This adherence to the conventions of protocol (much of it based on traditional behaviour at court) may seem bizarre in an age when equality and egalitarianism are hard-wired into our democracies, but we disregard them at our peril. In the same way that football would be un-playable without rules, so international relations would descend into anarchy without some universally accepted conventions.

But protocol - and its sibling, etiquette - are facing new threats, and not just from the libertarian fringe. Globalisation is causing us to review our customs because what might be termed "accepted behaviour" in one culture is alien, (or even offensive) to another. One has only to think of attitudes to punctuality. How the Swedes (obsessed by time-keeping), ever do business with the Italians (unaware of the concept), is beyond me.

But it is in matters of etiquette that the greatest confusion reigns. Etiquette has been defined (by an Australian) as "knowing which fingers to put in your mouth when you whistle for the waiter" but, perhaps the dictionary definition is more instructive: "conventional requirements as to social behaviour". Today, perceptions (and aspirations) of class, obsolete practices, progressive ideals, political correctness, gender sensitivities and our natural, conformist tendencies have all been curdled into a very murky broth. It is a soup that's too hot to drink - even if I was sure of the correct way to do so.

To take one example: the convention of seating men and women alternately at the dinner table is accepted etiquette throughout Europe. But what is a host to do when a guest arrives with a same sex partner?

Hopefully, the Slovenian government Protocol Department can refer to a manual which offers guidance on such dilemmas. Certainly a definitive guide to modern manners - because etiquette is nothing more - should be bookmarked on every conference organiser's laptop.

Another sector of this minefield is labelled "Dress" (or in American: "Attire"). In our efforts to be egalitarian, what a dog's dinner we have made of something that was once so straightforward. There was little room for misunderstanding when we used terms such as "formal" and "casual". Now we confuse each other with instructions like "smart casual" and "no jeans please". Telling us what not to wear is hardly good guidance.

So although international relations are still mostly guided by traditional protocols, at an individual level, society is confused, bewildered and unsure.

Perhaps it's time to go back to basics. To replace outdated etiquette with good manners which are, essentially, common sense. If all our words and actions were to be measured against the yardstick of courtesy we would get along just fine. Hosts have an obligation to make guests relax and feel welcome. Guests have similar responsibilities.

It's a reasonable rule that to do, or say, anything that discomforts another person - unless done deliberately - is bad manners and to be avoided.

Thus, I will eat the dormouse casserole if my Slovenian host serves it (although I hope he doesn't,) and I will always bring a gift when visiting his home (a delightful custom, all but lost in Britain). I will observe the conventions of Slovenian business life by using the formal manner of greeting until I know the other person well. And I will send a letter of thanks to my host (although it may be by e-mail.)

Judging by the hospitality, friendliness and traditional courtesy with which I have been received everywhere in Slovenia, I am confident that the government's Protocol Department is doing a thoroughly professional job in their role as diplomatic hosts. The success of the Presidency depends upon it.

Tony Carey is a consultant to the international conference industry. He has a house in Slovenia.,


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