Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Class in US Protocol and Etiquette: "Eat the Goat Eyes!"

I had a rather entertaining weekend. As I had previously mentioned, I spent my Saturday at FSI taking a somewhat notorious 6-hour class called "U.S. Protocol and Representation Abroad." Oh boy! I was excited. I love hosting and entertaining, and all the formality that comes with our new job, so I simply could not wait to hear all the neat rules that govern all that in the Foreign Service. I thought you’d find it entertaining if I filled you in on the major points.
The day started on a rather upbeat note when we were sent in an adjacent room to practice lining up to and schmoozing at a (coffee) reception. Apparently, sitting in line to a reception is an art in and of itself--what with the shaking hands with the hostess, then with the guest of honor and then being literally whisked away by the line mover. Yes, a line mover--his job is to move a guest quickly out of the line after all the hand-shaking has been done and the guest decides to freeze like a lonely, petrified deer in headlights when faced with the room full of other people, merrily chatting away while balancing tiny plates with hors d'oeuvres and large glasses of wine. The goal of the exercise was to find a specific person (we were given a name) in the crowd and learn something interesting about them. As a result, about 35 people spent a frantic 15 minutes drinking orange juice and coffee with a cookie while trying to find out their appointed person unobtrusively and thusly introducing themselves to everyone else. Moral of the exercise: do NOT dip the cookie in the coffee (yes, some did), do NOT put the coffee cup on top of the OJ glass, eat a snack before you leave home (apparently, it is undesirable to get drunk fast at formal events, who knew) and dress appropriately (we were told the startling truth that Americans tend adhere to, um, rather relaxed dress code at formal events overseas--so, when invited to a BBQ in Latin America, put on some high heels and a slinky dress to be on the safe side, or an unnecessarily expensive linen suit, if applicable) and for all that is holy to you, do NOT eat and drink at the same time. Oh yes, and say good-bye when you leave. None of us did.
Then we were given a trillion rules on how to address folks and how NOT to introduce people to those of higher rank. It appears that it is rather inappropriate to say to the Ambassador of Panama (with whom you happen to play tennis regularly and know way too much about already), "Say Jose, this here is my man Sergey, a Third Secretary from the Ukrainian Embassy, he has just arrived and is looking for some good buddies to have fun." We were told that you NEVER, under ANY circumstances, call an Ambassador by his first name. Even if he begs you to. Even if you are dying to. Unless he is your husband (and even then I am not sure...).
Then we were given a 20 minute lecture on handing out business cards--a frightening and rule-filled process.
Mercifully, soon after that we were given a break to forage for food. We came back to a video from the 1980s (my God--the hair, the suits, the dresses with ginormous sleeves, the massive women's eye-wear, HOW EVER did all of those ever come out of fashion?!), which illustrated for us the proper decorum during business lunch, as well as the correct way to eat certain foods during such important meals. The examples included cutting a watermelon, eating strawberries without cream, eating strawberries WITH cream, eating MIXED fruit, snails, fish with bone, fish WITHOUT bone, and so forth. In the end, I just felt bad for the poor fella, who kept eating food after food during his presentation. I swear I could notice him nearly gagging as he was served food #67--a boiled egg--after he has just eaten a steak, a fish WITH bone, a chicken leg, some pasta, a pile of berries and a soup.
After the break, we were ushered into another room to decipher the fine art of proper dining. Our teacher was a wife of an Ambassador with an impressive list of diplomas in protocol and etiquette from all over the world. She was originally from Mexico and spoke impeccable English with fabulous Latin accent, which along with her apparent passion for her subject (she literally told us, "I am VERY passionate about this!), made the 2 hour presentation most entertaining. I thought she was superb!
She had lined one table with every imaginable dining-related instrument known in the world--from Chinese chopsticks' resting thingy, to strangely shaped Dutch spoons for serving mini appetizers, also called Amuse-gueule spoon (see illustration here http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivomathieugaston/5335627065/), to forks for eating lobster, shrimp, snail, oyster, and any other sea critter that had the audacity to hide behind a shell, various types of fish and game, to a knife resting thingy, to even hooks for hanging your purse at the table. Another table had an elaborate setting for a semi-formal dinner. After we ooh-ed and ahh-ed for 15 minutes, we took our seats and the education began. One after the other came rules at an amazing speed and even more amazing logic:
--you serve food hovering from the left and remove it from the right
--a man escorts a lady to the table, pulls the chairs and she MUST enter it from the right hand side
--do NOT bring drinks to the dining table from the cocktail hour (try to tell THAT to young wedding guest)
--the host pours wine 1/2 to 2/3 of a glass and once your wine is over do NOT ask for more, you lush, wait for the host to notice and pour you some
--serve sherry with the soup and remove it promptly with the removal of the soup even if the guest is desperately clutching to his miniscule sherry glass
--couples should split upon entering a party, not stick to each in fear
--keep your elbows together-"You are not flying anywhere!"
--split couples at the table UNLESS they are only engaged (I suppose the rule came from the fear that if you split them, they might get interested in someone else during dinner? I imagine that happened at a few formal parties and British put an end to the nonsense)
--and for the love of Pete, NEVER EVER put napkin rings for a formal dinner!
We received a demonstration on eating a soup (I volunteered; I did wrong) and given the stern warning "Do not scuba dive in the soup!"
We were also told that no matter how detesting the food on our plate is, we MUST eat a bit, and then "Divide and decorate"--cut things in pieces and strew them around the plate to make it look like we ate a lot.
And finally, NEVER offend the host by not eating something out of disgust--our brave lecturer told us that she had eaten it all--rats, snakes, monkey, donkey, horse, bugs, ears, guts, butt and really bad salad, but she swore she would never ever eat eyes. And would you know it--once, as she was entering the dining hall at a particularly festive and formal diplomatic party, there they were--from her dining plate two appetizer goat eyes were staring plaintively at her saying, "Don't eat me!" (her words, not mine). But then her husband, the American Ambassador, looked her just as plaintively and she knew what she had to do--eat the damn eyes. And so she did. Now THAT is what I call a brave diplomat.
Filled with horror and awe, we moved on to the last part of the day--a lesson on seating arrangements. At least we got that part right. With head bursting with formalities, I picked up the Diplomat and Son and headed over to a party for FSI bloggers. I can safely say that NONE of the above-mentioned rules were observed there. Everyone ate and drank at the same time, often with their mouth filled with both, children ran and yelled all over the party room at Falls Church Oakwood, and we all gesticulated wildly while holding forks and knives (do not that, “you are at a dinner, not conducting at the Met Opera with a fork!!”). Nevertheless, extremely good times were had by all. Especially since someone had brought in an exceptionally fabulous desert of graham crackers and custard crème on which I overate.
This week will see me take the BEX Bangla exam on Thursday at 1 pm. I need some MAJOR luck on that one.

It is open to EFMs but since there are a lot of people wanting to get in, you have to sign up for it ASAP and wait for approval. The class is offered roughly every 2 months or so, on a Saturday. The next one will be on 4/2/11.


  1. Is this class open to EFM's? Does FSI offers this class on regular basis?. Your review was very funny.

  2. Good questions! I should have said that. Yes, the class is open to and at least half of the attendees were EFMs (remember, I am still one until 3/28). Also, the class is offered once every 2 months or so, but there is quite the wait list, so if you can, put yourself on it right away.

  3. Great post- very interesting!

    Good luck on your Bangla exam! I am sure you will do fantastic! I hope to hear how it goes.

  4. Thank you for the info!
    Good luck on your test! :)

  5. Your review is spot on; I took the course last spring and had a similar experience. I do think, though, that some of our foreign interlocutors must get a kick out of knowing we have to and will eat anything - and serve things even they won't eat!

  6. this is a fabulous blog. I laugh out loud and can't wait to being the FSO process myself. Please keep posting!!!

  7. Do you know who to email to get on the waiting list?

  8. Your spouse (if you are the EFM) should go online/intranet to the FSI courses listings and sign you up from there. You will be contacted at some point to let you know whether you made it. It might be rather last minute...

  9. I am a(n) FSO hopeful and a vegetarian. The whole "eating anything" requirement has me a little unnerved. Thanks for the heads up, though.

    1. Remember - "divide and scatter!" But to be honest - most places you will go, there will be private chefs or something for the receptions you will go to. So, the goat eyes and roasted roaches would be exquisitely prepared...

  10. This post made me hungry! I need to see what the cook's got ready for me: dal, bhat, bitter gourd and other things. Since I'll be eating alone, I won't have to worry about hover-serving from the left and removing from the right.

    I like the "Divide and decorate". Much better than "divide and rule". And this blog answers something I'd often asked myself the past few years, "What kinds of training do US diplomats get in global table manners?"

    Thank you.

  11. Interesting! I had so much laugh...! And sadly, I know it wouldn't be so funny when I have to eat just everything later I become the foreign service officer....!

    1. Oh yes, you get to eat some errrr, eclectic food and smile about it too! But fear not, most of it is OK.

  12. Goodness, this really opened my eyes up to something I had not yet considered: I am attempting to become a FSO and I am a strict vegan for moral, quasi-religious reasons (and a dairy allergy). Of course, I understand the responsibility to be open and gracious to host countries, and that my veganism arose from a place of privilege. Do you have any suggestions about what to do in these social situations?

    1. It very much depends on the situation. If you are at a larger reception (as it most often happens), then no one watches what you eat, obviously. If it is a sit down dinner at someone's place, you'll need to gauge how demanding you could be with your dietary restrictions but people are generally very understanding.