Rebecca Black is one of the country’s foremost etiquette professionals and educators. Based in California, she has been running Etiquette Now for more than a decade. She inadvertently landed in the public spotlight due to having the same name as a severely criticized teen pop-singer. Rebecca has been noted for her gracious and civilized responses to misdirected abusive tweets. In this interview, we explore the role and effect of proper etiquette in society and the workplace.
How did you begin and develop your career as a professional etiquette consultant?
Originally, I created my first etiquette course for the classroom. I'm a teacher. It was quite a hit with the children, their parents and other teachers in the school. So when I decided to retire early from [teaching in] the classroom in 1994, I decided to teach etiquette. I didn't begin my business until 1996, though.
I began teaching only young children, but found that the teens and college students needed even more help. I began creating lessons as I found a need. My business and career truly blossomed from a small seed.
What would you say is the essence of etiquette? In other words, if one is presented with an etiquette dilemma, what kinds of considerations should one observe in order to arrive at a polite solution?
I believe that the essence of etiquette is to be the little skipper rock. Imagine a calm pond with no disturbing noises around you. You see a little skipper rock and fling it across the water. There are very few ripples and then the rock quietly disappears. Now imagine a loud boisterous person picking up a big rock and tossing it in the water. The water is no longer calm. There are big ripples that flow out to the edges of the pond. The noise and ripples affect everything around the pond. To be polite, we should want to affect others in only a positive manner with respect, kindness and consideration.
Is there a difference between being polite and having good manners?
A bit. Treating people well is being polite. We want to be "nice". But good manners go a bit further [and entails] knowing to say "excuse me" when stepping in between people, opening doors for… [others], etc. The person with good manners knows the rules of polite behavior in all situations [which amounts to proper] etiquette.
Some would criticize rules of etiquette as fake, old-fashioned or even classist. How would you respond?
Most who say this really don't understand what good manners and etiquette are. We, all of us, make up the rules [of etiquette]. These rules change as our society changes. These rules are basically the polite behavior most people expect from others. When we don't receive it, we notice. Those who feel that only the wealthy [practice good] etiquette or proper behavior might be putting themselves in [the] embarrassing situation of being viewed by as ill-mannered and socially inept those they know and care about. That is not [how] I believe anyone would want to be [perceived].
How can someone without good manners begin to develop them (besides consulting you or your site)?
If we want to "fit in" and to be viewed as well-mannered, all we need to do is to be observant. Watch those who exude gentlemanly and/or lady-like behavior and emulate them.
Do the rules of etiquette differ depending on the specific relationship at hand? For example, are the rules different when dealing with co-workers, customers and close friends and family?
It's not really that the rules are totally different for different situations, but [that] there is a different etiquette involved for each situation. We would still treat others much the same, but our behavior is tweaked for each situation. For example: we know what is expected of us at work, so we are more formal in our manners and typically more reserved with our feelings. When at home, we can say exactly what is on our minds and are less formal, but we still treat [everyone] with respect and kindness.
You've been consulted by several businesses such as Noah's Bagels. What advantages does proper etiquette offer both employers and employees across various industries?
People skills are highly valued no matter the industry. So when we know how to treat people well, to engage others in conversation, [and] to be able to acknowledge others in a believable fashion, [we offer a] major advantage over those who cannot. [As a result proper etiquette] is great for business. Customers want to be treated well and will frequent businesses that employ those who behave properly.
Have you yourself always been well-mannered?
I believe so [even though] I wasn't brought up to be [as etiquette] wasn't a focus [of my upbringing]. We were brought up to take care of ourselves and to go out and gain employment. But I always worried about how my behavior affected others and tried to be nice in all situations—[it was] not always so easy. My biggest issues were that I never felt like I knew how to connect with others and always felt out of place. This is one of the driving forces for me now. I don't want anyone else to feel as I did growing up.
Is it ever polite to talk about money/finances or do the truly well- mannered avoid this subject (except with those who are directly involved)?
Unless asked, it really is considered boorish to discuss money/finances with those who haven't started the conversation. In fact, even then, we should keep particulars to ourselves if that person doesn't absolutely need to know. It can be viewed as boorish or bragging if we go on and on about our financial well-being.
Are there any celebrities you think exemplify proper etiquette?
Yes, absolutely. Matt Damon is a true gentleman from what I can see. He tends to try to put others at ease and is concerned with their comfort, as is evident in his interviews. [He] asks his interviewers pertinent questions like,"How's your daughter? I heard she had a cold."[He] has excellent body language and behaves politely in public.
There will always be rude, selfish people with whom we will be forced to interact. Any tips for dealing with difficult people without stooping to their level?
When faced with someone with whom we must interact, it is best to keep it short and sweet-- just [focus on] the facts, business and [then] leave. I call it being the duck. We just let the water flow off our back, smile and keep moving. I remind myself that I don't have to live with that person [which] helps me [cope with the situation].
You've described yourself as an advocate of civility. What do we have to gain collectively as a culture that embraces etiquette?
If we all made it a priority to treat others with respect and kindness and truly tried to think of others in a broad manner, our society would truly be one that doesn't put a higher value on one [set of] people over another. I believe [etiquette] comes from empathy…. I believe that if we have empathy, we actually see that other person and feel his pain, thusly wouldn't (hopefully) do anything… purposely hurt[ful]. Ultimately, I suppose that translates to all of us behaving in a manner where we would focus on kindness, respect, courtesy and consideration rather than harm…. [The world] would be a wonderful place to live [with] less crime [and] less violence.
You gained significant media and twitter attention as the result of sharing the name of an oft-berated teen singer. What did you learn about society and yourself from that frenzy?
Ah, yes; “It's Friday!” That was quite an odd situation. Of course, I know and knew about hateful people [and] actually I have been a victim of violence myself. But I didn't really know about the level of hateful and malicious behavior of internet trolls. That was quite an education[al experience]. Some of the things they said, on a computer screen for all to see, was shocking-- and I've seen quite a lot in my years. Wow. Surprisingly though, I found myself to be very calm about it all, even though typically I would be quite upset reading that someone wanted to kill me. Perhaps knowing they were directing [the hatred] toward someone else helped. But it was very scary stuff. I found that if I countered [the abuse] with humor and humanistic language, it helped [internet trolls] see that she and I are real people. To be honest, I think it helped me. Due to my reaction to the vitriol, I have a larger following, which is wonderful. Hopefully the end result will be that I get my wish: more people out there committing R.A.K.s (random acts of kindnesses) everyday.
The internet has had a significant impact on how we communicate. Despite its casualness, what rules of etiquette still apply to online communications such as email, facebook and twitter?
The rules are the same and many are beginning to realize it. We should communicate in all [media] as if we are communicating to a real person. We should use capital letters and punctuation when possible. Of course, Twitter makes that a bit difficult. But how badly do we want to be understood? We should make it easier to do so and, with email [one should] reply quickly.
We should also remember that the Internet is a very big place and when we put ourselves out there, we will be judged. We just need to read a current newspaper to realize the importance of remembering this. (Google: YouTube, Starbucks' employee.) It is best to keep our religious and political affiliation to ourselves unless our profiles are completely private. These are polarizing belief systems these days.
What is the relationship between dress and etiquette?
Everything we do matters and everything we do affects others around us. This is true of our appearance…. Imagine someone coming up to you and asking for directions. If this person is well dressed, we wouldn't hesitate [to offer help]. However, if this person is dressed in rags or provocative clothing, we might hesitate. We all judge others based on their attire. It's engrained in our brains [that a] police officer [wears a specific ]uniform, [a] chef [another]. We all wear the uniform we want others to believe we should wear—[that of] who we are portraying. So, let's consider how this [principle] applies to etiquette. We know the behavior that is expected of us when we are participating in a certain activity like skiing. We certainly wouldn't show up to ski with our friends wearing a baseball uniform even if we wore a jacket for warmth [because] we wouldn't fit in. Others would treat us as if we were odd. The same is true for the workplace. Those who dress the part are taken more seriously as if they take their job more seriously.
You mention much of the basis of etiquette being concern for others. I'm curious how etiquette still allows for individuality?
When we begin to focus on how our behavior affects others, we actually become better people. We are more self-aware. And, it takes nothing from us. We can still stand up for ourselves, even if we know it makes the other person uneasy. At least we know that our behavior is part of the equation.
I hope you've all enjoyed my interview with the gracious and articulate Ms. Black. Is etiquette important to you? Who do you think personifies good manners?