Think Before You Speak
Our Dear Friends,
Of the chapters we’ve read so far in Emily Post’s original book on etiquette, the one on Conversation stands out as perhaps more applicable to today’s audience than it was to her early 20th century readers. She makes many recommendations on how to have good conversation with others, but chief among them is her call for people to stop and think before they speak.
A dear friend of ours had the good fortune of meeting Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, at an event for entrepreneurs at Texas A&M University. After shaking his hand, she asked, “What’s it like to be a part of SILICONE Valley?” Mr. Metcalfe responded, “Well, SILICONE Valley is the space between two implants, but SILICON Valley is equally exciting.”
Fortunately, this mild embarrassment turned out to be for the benefit of all involved. Mr. Metcalfe showed a quick, non-malicious wit and our friend displayed grace in accepting his correction. Though this situation ended well, it is easy to imagine how a similar ordeal could have played out poorly. It is not uncommon for people to breeze through what would amount to half a second of reason before opening their mouths.
Perhaps the only place left where Emily Post would be proud of interpersonal conversation is the airport. With the world on high alert for most of the century, we have grown up aware that a joke that might elicit laughter elsewhere, will not be funny to TSA personnel or a borderline agent. After landing at London Heathrow last January, Alexander, an American returning to his studies at Oxford after Christmas break, approached the borderline agent with his passport containing his UK visa and ticket showing he’d just arrived from Chicago. Upon turning to the Visa (which is always stamped on initial arrival) the agent asked, “Have you left the country since you first arrived.” Obviously, he had, as he was standing on the wrong side of the border she was patrolling with his visa already stamped. Being a particularly snarky individual, Alexander had a witty comment on the tip of his tongue, but then thought better. In this case, he held his tongue because he did not care to be needlessly detained, but Post might say in making the agent feel respected and intelligent herself, he behaved more cleverly than if he had shared his witty remark at all.
The airport demands etiquette that is no longer assumed outside its confines. Etiquette should not be driven by fear, but people might do well to occasionally imagine their company as a group of borderline agents wielding the power of detention. If we all did this, it might open the airwaves for more useful listening and less baseline chatter. Try this on your friends and let us know how it goes,
Peter & Alexander