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Civil Crisis | Etiquette coach Syndi Seid takes off the gloves.

Despite gallant efforts from moms everywhere, good manners appear to be circling the drain. But thanks to the work of Syndi Seid, perhaps future generations will not think it’s okay to wipe their mouths on their shirt sleeves, blab about their personal lives in cell phone conversations at parties, or wear flip-flops to a funeral. A graduate of the Protocol School of Washington, D.C., Seid travels the world as a trainer and speaker on how to navigate everything from consuming a Chinese banquet to getting a gift for an Austrian CEO (hint: avoid perfume). She’s even written a book, Etiquette in Minutes (Insight Press, 2008), for those raised in barns. Just in time for Mother’s Day, I sat down with Seid at the San Francisco world headquarters of her manners training empire, Advanced Etiquette, for an update from the frontlines.

Paul Kilduff: Where did it all go wrong with etiquette? Why do you have a job?

Syndi Seid: If everybody behaves themselves, then I’ll be out of a job. Where it went wrong was during the hippie-dippy era. We wanted to create a world in which people could be themselves, and especially for women where they could get out of the house and find their own employment. The birth of this movement was sound. However, it just went a little too far.

PK: So you’re blaming women’s liberation?

SS: No. I’m going to blame the hippie-dippy era, okay?

PK: So there’s a distinction to be made there. It sounds like we lost our sense of manners because we’re so concerned about fulfilling our dreams.

SS: There was a rebellion to having to learn all these rules—these do’s and don’ts. Then came the free-to-be-me generation, and all that was emphasized was to develop yourself. So the kindness and the courtesies started going by the wayside. To bring it up to the current day, even more [is] being lost because kids aren’t interacting as much face-to-face. They’re constantly texting. Social media is their main platform for meeting people and having conversations.

PK: That’s regrettable, isn’t it?

SS: It is.

PK: And it would seem to me that a major part of learning just basic manners—when do you shut up and let somebody else say something, what fork to use, don’t slurp your soup—all this kind of stuff you’re going to learn at the dining room table with your parents, right?

SS: No, I sure didn’t.

PK: Oh, where did you learn?

SS: Being Chinese-American, I was brought up using chopsticks all my life.

PK: All right, but I remember talking about basic stuff at the dinner table, no?

SS: I’m going to say it can’t be expected any longer, now that we have such diversity in our society. [Maybe] you grew up with chopsticks, you grew up eating with your hands; you grow up as a latchkey kid who doesn’t sit down with their parents at meals every day. And the loss of home economic classes, that’s where I learned how to set a table.

PK: But I mean, because there’s been a push lately to actually have a meal with your family and turn off the TV.

SS: Yes.

PK: That’s what I’m talking about. Culturally, there’s going to be different mores but still, if you’re not having a family meal together, what is that?

SS: I totally agree with that, but that again assumes that you are in a household where that is possible, versus a household where the parents are working two or three jobs. However, I do believe in that family meal and set[ting] aside times. even if it is going to be once a month instead of even once a week.

PK: So you’ve got a lot of job security.

SS: [But] I would love to be put out of business.

PK: How much can you expect people to pick this stuff up without the training that you provide? Where do kids learn this kind of stuff?

SS: That is exactly what I think of my work as. It is just another course. We all go through school to learn life skills and, because the school system doesn’t help in this regard, because family environments don’t help, I’m here and I’m happy to serve.

PK: And you would like to see the return of home economics classes.

SS: Absolutely.

PK: I’m old enough to remember when we had home economics classes in junior high school and there were no boys taking that class or very few.

SS: And if they were, they were kind of ridiculed.

PK: Yeah, exactly. Why was that? It does seem like it’s the domain of women and mothers to teach these kinds of things.

SS: In modern times, it can be quite the opposite. There are many stay-at-home dads now and most households have shared responsibilities of bringing up their kids. It is more the point of having the discipline. Parents, I think, are a little too lenient with their children in allowing them to practically run their lives.

PK: Where do you see that kids are running the show?

SS: I have seen young people talking back to their parents. I have seen young people swear at their parents, not obeying their instructions.

PK: Kids are going to do that, but how do you lay down the law effectively? Do you think—this is my little half-baked theory—that people are so busy and they don’t have the time to spend with their kids that when they do, they don’t want to spend that time disciplining them?

SS: They want to enjoy their child and have fun with them and play with them.

PK: Wow, so it’s another thing. It’s just like sumo wrestling lessons . . .

SS: Piano lessons, anything . . .

PK: We’ve had parties and people come over and start talking on their cell phones. Are we setting a bad example with the constant being in touch?

SS: I think so, especially when you’re attending a party. We need to learn to achieve a reasonable balance and to focus on being with the people who are in front of us. So through a business lunch, through that party, at home through dinner—most calls can wait half-an-hour or an hour. And if you have to take one, [learn] to not take it in front of everyone else at the party. You are going to go out in the hallway, out of the house, out of the room to take it.

PK: Where do you think that comes from? It’s like everybody wants to act like, “I’m so important. I have an important thing that’s going to take me away from the moment right here with you that we’re all sharing because I have a life and this is more important than talking to you right now.”

SS: That is a statement that you are sending, and that is the regrettable statement that someone on the telephone takes precedence over the friends, family, the people who are in front of you.

PK: Are there established rules about cell phone usage? It seems like the Wild West.

SS: It is not about all of the lists of do’s and don’ts but more an attitude of how you approach what you do and how it is affecting everybody else. That’s what true etiquette and civility is all about. It isn’t about the do’s and don’ts and pleases and thank yous. It is all about how you are allowing yourself to build the meaningful relationships you want to have with the people that are around you, not only the cyber-relationships but the human ones.

PK: The other thing that I’ve noticed—and I wonder if this goes hand in hand—is the casual nature of our dress today. Does this contribute to a lack of civility?

SS: It is a lack of civility but more than that, I think it’s a lack of respect. Where I really draw the line and find offense is nowadays, I’m seeing people go to weddings, funerals, their place of worship, just wearing what I would call sloppy clothes. Neat and clean and well-pressed, that is at the bottom minimum that I think is appropriate for any situation. And that I’m not seeing.

PK: Is that a West Coast thing?

SS: It’s global. It’s global.

PK: Global sloppiness.

SS: I will say Americans were the . . .

PK: We started it?

SS: Absolutely and it’s popularized through movies, popularized through ads and life.

PK: In certain situations it almost works against you when you try to dress appropriately and all of sudden, you’re overdressed.

SS: You can overcome this kind of a situation. For instance, I often say, “Gosh! This is great. I wish I knew I could only wear jeans and a shirt. I had other calls today, I had to be more well dressed,” or something.

PK: If you’re at some meeting in a company and you’re just trying to figure out who’s who and you don’t know anybody there; the person, at least nowadays, who is probably the most casually dressed is probably the CEO. And that’s really sending a message, isn’t it? That you know, “Hey man, clothes aren’t important to me. Dressing up, that’s old school.”

SS: However, major companies down in Silicon Valley, sure they’re dressing as you described here in our Bay Area. But they’ve recognized when they are going overseas, going to Europe, going to other countries, that in many situations, they are going to have to put on a jacket, maybe not a tie, but a jacket.

PK: So what are you telling me? Some software dude from Silicon Valley is putting on a sport coat to go to Europe?

SS: It doesn’t even have to be a sport coat, it’s some kind of a coat.

PK: What is the world coming to? My wife travels a lot, a lot more than I do. She’s been to China and she’s always telling me stuff like, “You don’t want to finish everything on your plate because that’s rude. That means you’re not satisfied and they’re going to keep piling more food.” That’s true, right?

SS: To a great extent, that’s true. However, Chinese dining is more family style, so I would say at the onset you would not clean your plate off. However, when all of the food has been divvied up, you certainly are welcome to finish [what you have left on your plate].

PK: One thing that always seems to be coming up is the importance and the appropriateness of gifts in various cultures. Are the Japanese the ultimate gift-giving culture?

SS: The Japanese around the world certainly have rituals they adhere to much more than other cultures. In America you never go to a home without a house gift of sorts, so there are many cultures that have a gift-giving culture. It’s just that we hear a lot more about it within the Japanese culture.

PK: In Austria you don’t give perfume—why is that?

SS: In many cultures, you don’t give perfume, red roses. Things of romance and intimacy are not good business gifts.

PK: And no extravagant gifts in Denmark.

SS: No extravagant gifts in most cultures, as it is perceived as a little bit of a bribe.

PK: What about the American penchant for gag gifts?

SS: I am not in favor of giving gag gifts for anything related to business. Gag gifts are only good for people that are really close friends.

PK: Coming back to China, when the check comes, and if you’re not having a fistfight over it, man, that’s bad form. And I mean, the check comes in this country, it’s like kryptonite.

SS: Yes. I think I’ll go to the restroom, yes.

PK: How many people know that one?

SS: You know, that’s a time-honored custom within the Asian culture to fight over the check and it really is more out of friendship that you do it. I will say in business, you won’t find that as much. It is well accepted and understood, whoever does the inviting is the person that most likely will be paying. However, then you must reciprocate in some fashion or form by inviting them out to another business lunch or dinner. So there isn’t as much fighting.

PK: Do you see more now that people just want to split everything?

SS: Well, when it comes to splitting a bill, it needs to be split evenly among all the people at the table. It is not appropriate to say, “Well, I only had a salad and you had wine and dessert.” So that you’re there really for the company and really, you’ve just got to bite the bullet and allow the entire tab to be split and in reverse, knowing that, it may encourage you to have an extra salad.

PK: Another ongoing issue, and I know it varies from country to country, is tipping. Is it ever appropriate not to tip if the service was poor?

SS: No, I don’t think it is appropriate to not tip or to tip the penny because you thought you had such poor service. Because as you know, the pay scale is, in the United States, a part of their compensation. They did serve you even though it was perhaps not to your satisfaction. So at minimum for me, it’s rock bottom of 10, average is 15, and it is actually only 20 towards more the high-end restaurants where they did provide over-the-top service.

PK: Do you find that there’s any interest in what you’re doing from people in Berkeley?

SS: I do find a lot of clients in Berkeley. I’ve done a number of seminars over at the Claremont Hotel and other private clubs that are in and around Berkeley. Absolutely.

PK: Let’s face it, when you say Berkeley, there’s an image that things are pretty casual.

SS: It is. However, it is also known that Berkeley has some of the most intelligent people on this planet. They have the full choice of how they want to behave and with full knowledge of what it is that they are doing. It is not out of ignorance. It is choice.


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Photo courtesy Syndi Seid.


Syndi Seid Vital Stats

Age: You never ask a lady her age, please.

Birthplace: San Francisco

Astrological sign: Aries

Planet I’d emigrate to: Venus