Sophistication is in the cards

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      Cognito: Modern Wisdom for Dining and Social Etiquette is a trendy-looking, tastefully packaged deck of protocol cards just in time for the fast-approaching festive season’s endless parties and its endorsement of good will among men and women. It landed on my desk soon after Peter MacKay’s recent fuddle duddle and Norman Spector’s follow-up comment on a Vancouver radio station. Canada’s foreign-affairs minister implied during a session of Parliament that his former girlfriend, Liberal MP Belinda Stronach, is a bitch. Then Spector, a political opinionist and Brian Mulroney’s former chief of staff, said on-air, “Bitch is a word I would use to describe someone like Belinda Stronach.” He added, “You know I’m not in politics; I can say it, I think she’s a bitch.”

      Maybe he can say it, but why would he? The NDP, riled by escalating rudeness in the House, put on their Sunday bonnets and called for a code of conduct that would fine MPs for using certain words. A better suggestion is a swear jar like the one Stephen Harper has at home. This would lighten things up considerably, which is one of etiquette’s raîsons d’être.

      “Manners are tools,” says Margaret Page by phone. After running a successful Calgary business for years, the etiquette consultant attended D.C.’s Protocol School of Washington, then set up shop for several years in Las Vegas before relocating her company, Etiquette Page, to the Sunshine Coast. She created Cognito with the Vancouver design firm Cause & Effect. “Some people think that etiquette is about elitism and snobbishness. But gracious behaviour can be very useful in all kinds of real-life situations, from romance to smoothing out difficult social situations to getting your foot in the door [in a work situation].”

      Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion showed just how far proper etiquette can take you, although sometimes the prize isn’t worth it. As for getting a foot in the door, fiction’s most intriguing fiends, Dracula and Hannibal Lecter, used good manners to their advantage. But let’s not overdo the Machiavellian benefits of being able to identify the salad fork, lest we forget Jacob Marley’s lament in A Christmas Carol: “Mankind was my business.” In an age in which dialogue has devolved into diatribe and uncivil discourse prevails, basic etiquette separates the men from the boys. Citing the Stronach affair, Page elaborates on what makes good manners so important. Apparently, some men need to pay attention.

      “Do you remember what Justin said about his father at the wake for Pierre Trudeau? He talked about the time he had made fun of one of his father’s rivals. Trudeau told his son that you can disagree with someone else’s ideas without putting down the person.”

      In 1971, when Trudeau was accused of telling an opposition MP to fuck off in the House of Commons, like MacKay he denied it, insisting that all he had said was “fuddle duddle”. The difference between his breach of etiquette and Peter MacKay’s is that Trudeau’s, though rude, did not smack of character assassination or endemic sexism.

      The card deck’s introduction claims that etiquette can “help you discover the calm of confidence and the power of good manners”. Confidence and power were certainly the underpinnings of etiquette, or “prescribed behaviour”, when it originated in 18th-century France on cards containing instructions for how to behave properly at court. It was a variation on the ancient-Greek ceremonial rules, the protokollon.

      Cognito sells for $38 at Lark 8th Avenue (152 East 8th Avenue) and Hills of Kerrisdale (2125 West 41st Avenue), and on-line at The deck—comprised of 52 beautifully designed cards featuring a recurring owl motif (reinforcing the connection between wisdom and considerate behaviour)—is divided into sections such as “Dining Don’ts”, “How to Host”, and “Silverware Solved”, and acknowledges cross-culturalism with “Asian Know-How” and “Go Continental”. Each card provides a useful tip about hospitality protocol.

      There seem to be a lot of younger guys out there who could use some etiquette training. The Stronach business reminded me of three teenage boys on a West End bus a few months ago, slouched in a clump across the aisle from three young women with whom they were travelling. They went on a jag about how all the girls they know are “hos”: they dress like hos, act like hos, sleep around like hos, and so forth. I waited for the “f” word to drop and sure enough, it did.

      “You’re a fag.” “No, you’re a fag.” “No, you’re a fag.”

      I held back from saying anything because I wasn’t prepared to be civil and would have stoked rather than doused the fire. So I got off at my stop, taking comfort in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world, bitch.”