Wojciech S. Wocław,  Trainer, Managing Partner at Communication Agency Życie: Art of Living – Savoir-Vivre Always And Everywhere

Wojciech S. Wocław, Trainer, Managing Partner at Communication Agency Życie: Art of Living – Savoir-Vivre Always And Everywhere

Let’s start historically. The Greeks and Romans valued a life of beauty, ceremony and courtesy. Aristotle wrote that everything should be of the highest quality – man, his things and manners. Is it in antiquity that we should look for the roots of European savoir-vivre?

I am attached to the view that Europe is based on three foundations: ancient Greece, Roman law and the Judeo-Christian tradition. I think that antiquity gave us, among other things, the category of harmony, the need for which is reflected in many rules of savoir-vivre. Good parenting is an attempt to bring harmony to the chaos of our relationships. Christianity, together with the commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself”, in some sense gave us the spark to light the fire of empathy.

Savoir-vivre is the art of living. Times change, and customs evolve with them, including the rules of savoir-vivre, or the art of living. There are, of course, rules that have not changed since before our time. In the biblical Wisdom of Sirah, written nearly two hundred years B.C., you can read: “Eat what lies before you like a man; do not be gluttonous, lest you cause disgust. By good breeding be the first to cease [eating]; do not be insatiable, lest you alienate anyone.” In the depths of the Middle Ages, advice included that “no one should use the same spoon with another to eat.” This is the advice of Thomasin von Zerklaere (laughs). In turn, the rules of our mutual relations have changed, among other things. Today we provide work for each other on the basis of proper contracts, not feudal relations. In recent years, we have redefined femininity, which means, for example, that ladies today play different roles than in the past. This in turn influences the shape of the old rules of savoir-vivre.

Patterns of behavior moved to the royal courts and spread from there. During the monarchy court etiquette assumed enormous proportions, strictly regulating the daily schedule and every little detail of life at court. What was its significance and how did it help?

On the one hand, etiquette helped to build – to use today’s term – the image of the ruler and the monarchy, and on the other hand – it put life in order. Ambassador Tomasz Orłowski in his book “Diplomatic Protocol” describes a story that took place in 1661 in London. A bloody fight between the servants of the French and Spanish ambassador took place there, because neither of them, in accordance with the orders of their ruler, wanted to give way to the other’s carriage. The rules of precedence, or priority, were intended to help avoid similar situations. Certainly, courtly customs were also due to purely aesthetic reasons: they were supposed to make life more beautiful, more refined.

Europe began to reject savoir-vivre en masse in the 1960s. With the advent of liberalism came the times of total looseness, and thus also the negation of the rules of good manners. Savoir-vivre was fought as a symptom of the “old order” or a bourgeois custom. Should we still care about etiquette nowadays?

I would say: not bother, but take interest. Both my books, one on savoir-vivre and the other on business etiquette, have the subtitle “or how to make life easier”. Studying the field of savoir-vivre and etiquette, I noticed at some point that these rules were created precisely for this purpose: to make everyday life easier, not more difficult. And here are two observations. I often say that instead of rules of savoir-vivre it is better to talk about hints, about some possible, tested scenarios of how to react in a given situation. Scenarios that, when played out, will give you the certainty that you will act in an orderly manner, without the risk of hurting someone, spoiling the relationship or making a gaffe. And the second thing: we have to remember that these scenarios were born in a certain context – historical, social, etc. If the context changes, they probably change. If the context changes, the scenarios are likely to change as well.

The paradox of our times is that we often fail to notice the universality of savoir-vivre as such. We focus only on scenarios that lose their validity. Someone reaches for a guide to savoir-vivre, reads that a woman should be kissed on the hand or that a priest takes precedence over a village headman, then theatrically slams the book shut and comes to the conclusion that savoir-vivre should be discarded because it is anachronistic. The approach should be different. One should consider what one or the other described behavior expressed and how it is today. Do we still want to express the same thing? And if not, what kind of external expression, what kind of manifestation finds that which is important today?

On the one hand, some of us reject the rules of savoir-vivre, and on the other hand, every day we find ourselves in situations where we need a quick and proven scenario of action. Who should I introduce to whom? Should I shake hands first or wait? What to wear for this and not another occasion? So in order to make your life easier, to be able to afford a little bit of laziness in relations with people and not have to reinvent the wheel every time, to be able to give yourself freedom and ease in relations with people – it is worth “taking care” of etiquette today.

Many rules and norms disappeared during the communist era. The collapse of customs occurred in almost all areas of life, including interpersonal relations. Some people still remember unpleasant saleswomen, rude clerks, and the gaffes of party dignitaries. What were and are the consequences of the PRL’s influence on the culture of society?

Lamentable. I think that Poland should be looked at through the same prism through which we look at the former colonies. After all, since 1795 we were under the partitions. We did not have a chance to develop in the same conditions as, for example, the countries of Western Europe. The period of the Polish People’s Republic tried to create a new man in relation to a specific idea. This new man was to be born as a result of revolution, not evolution. I believe that such a thing is not only dangerous but also harmful. I have nothing against change. But I prefer it when it happens at its own pace, naturally. In any case, this period from 1795 to 1989 makes us, in a way, people who have to keep reinventing themselves. And this makes it necessary to constantly make new attempts, to constantly test new solutions, to look for patterns. Most often somewhere else than at home, than in our own tradition. That’s why today we are, as it seems to me, more American than Americans, more Western than people from the West, usually basing ourselves only on the popular images coming from the cinema, social media, newspapers, and so on.

Today, strict discipline has largely been replaced by stress-free upbringing. The manners no longer exist. More and more often the media promote boorishness and vulgarity. What might be the long-term effects of raising young people “without rules”? Will it make their lives easier or more difficult?

I once came across a meme on the Internet. It’s hard to say how much the story has in common with the truth, but, as it is in stories, the moral is interesting. An Arab sheik was to be asked about the future of his country. He was to say: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father did the same, I ride a Mercedes, my son a Land Rover, my grandson will probably also ride a Land Rover, and my great-grandson will probably ride a camel again.” “What do you mean!” – surprised the listener, to which the sheik said: “Hard times make strong people, strong people make good times, good times make weak people, and weak people make hard times. Well, it all depends on how we understand this stress-free upbringing. If it means that we don’t set limits for children and thus don’t teach them to set limits, don’t require children to be dutiful, don’t require them to take responsibility, don’t teach them that an action causes a reaction, i.e. that certain behaviors bring certain results and so on, then it will probably make life difficult for all of us in the future. If stress-free upbringing means talking instead of throwing a bucket of slop on your head, if it is based on empathy and assertiveness, if it assumes treating a child as a future adult, that is with proper respect, without characteristic protectionism, if it assumes that a child writes its own story, then I am “for” such stress-free upbringing. I am afraid that some people confuse stress-free upbringing with no upbringing. Simplicity and vulgarity breeds the latter.

Savoir-vivre has always been strongly cultivated in diplomacy, the so-called old aristocracy or certain groups of intelligentsia. Maybe savoir-vivre is the lifestyle of the elite, and in order to live according to its principles, one must be financially independent and have enough time?

Yes and no. Financial independence and freedom of time certainly create more opportunities. This does not change the fact that in the lives of most of us there is a space where knowledge of the rules of savoir-vivre can not only help, but also give a sense of raising the quality and level of life. Most of us are in an environment where there are some rules of precedence or hierarchy, we think about how to adjust our dress to the occasion, we go to restaurants and parties where we want to behave freely and without feeling that we will make a gaffe. I come from a small town. Once my neighbor, a retired miner, said to me: “You know, if you read your book or listen to your YouTube videos, when you go to Gołębiewski on vacation, at least you know what to do at the table with all those knives, forks and glasses. My neighbor began to gain some experience in life beyond the upbringing he received in his own home, but he didn’t have the key to that lock. He found it in a field he learned about…next door. In my elementary school days, it was clear that those who didn’t study got A’s in gym class, while those who excelled in gym class either sat on the bench or got D’s. Some people today take offense at savoir-vivre because historically it has been associated with aristocracy… Now let’s imagine that someone takes offense at sports because historically it has been associated with those who were neither knowledgeable nor intelligent. Who loses out on this? The athletic ones? The well-behaved?

It is said that a good waiter knows who he is dealing with by his manners. Recently, the so-called new elites have become fashionable. Can you pretend to be a well-mannered person? Can we learn the rules of good manners if we have not learned them at home?

Someone said that traveling educates, but only those who are  educated. A waiter will know who he is dealing with if he himself has received a good education in his profession and, above all, has appropriate manners. Does a waiter from the roundup have a chance to do that? I once heard an opinion that in wealthy countries the best cars are parked outside McDonald’s. People who have made their money like to go out somewhere, but they don’t like to be embarrassed by clothes or rules… This leaves fast food instead of a good restaurant. Can good manners be taught? You can learn them. Just like a language. And as in the case of a language learned as a second or third language, we will probably not use it as native speakers, but we will be more or less fluent in it. Someone who has only learned certain rules at a certain stage will not be as proficient in using them as someone who has known and practiced them since childhood. However, that person’s children will know them from the beginning of their lives. And that is the change. So let’s pose this question: do the new elites today want to learn something that has always been characteristic of elites? Do they assume that what they are is enough? Here we return to the problem of reinventing oneself… A well-mannered person is someone who behaves naturally. Naturalness cannot be faked, because then it will not be naturalness.

Will savoir-vivre return to favor? Do we start to realize the importance of the culture of everyday life and notice that obeying the rules makes life more beautiful and easier?

It depends on what kind of savoir-vivre you mean. Some savoir-vivre is still in favor. As a student once convinced me during a class, Boryna also had his savoir-vivre. We need to ask ourselves which role models we want to reach for. The aristocracy has a bad PR today (just to mention the recent polemic between Szczepan Twardoch and Maciej Radziwill in “Gazeta Wyborcza” or the book “People’s History of Poland” by Adam Leszczynski that I am reading), we associate the communist intelligentsia with poor and shabby, the middle class… By the way, do we have a middle class? What’s left is watching celebrities and the West? We are in some kind of process. Like we said, we’re reinventing ourselves.

For more than ten years I have been watching, for example, how the outfits of the guests of various awards galas, shown every year on television, change. They change. The proportion of jeans and t-shirts to suits and tuxedos has changed in that time in favor of elegant attire. And it will probably continue to change in that direction. I was recently at a similar event. The hosts did not provide a dress code – incorrectly, because it caused confusion among the guests – and yet most people came dressed elegantly. If one tried to place the rules of savoir-vivre in the famous pyramid of needs, they would certainly not be at its foundation. Probably not at the very top either, although they certainly lead to the top. Rules are basically a stupid thing. To know – to paraphrase “Pan Tadeusz” – “how to swing a leg with skill, how to greet anyone with a smile” is not the key issue in our lives. But not knowing these rules at all at a certain stage of life is an even more stupid thing.

What is savoir-vivre in business? Is the knowledge of savoir-vivre rules important for the development and existence of a company? Is it an important foundation for building and strengthening a company’s brand?

Recently I met a lady on a train from Warsaw to Krakow. She runs her own company. She graduated from law school and started her career quite early. At the age of 23 she became financial director in Polish branch of a big international company. I think it must have been about 10-15 years ago. Do you know what one of the first trainings the company provided her was? Business etiquette training. The trainer was brought in from overseas. I have no doubt that in conscious businesses and in companies at a certain level this is the foundation of building and strengthening the brand, first of all the own brand of employees – professionals who represent these companies to the outside world.

Is it possible to establish and maintain positive relations with customers and business partners without knowing and applying the rules of etiquette? Or is etiquette something that sets us apart from our competitors?

We will not deceive ourselves. We live in a time today where if we agree on the quality and price of the product we want to have, we are able to turn a blind eye to whether we are dealing with someone good or bad. At the same time, stories about breaking a contract because of bad behavior by a contractor still happen. A friend of mine, a lawyer, says that the law is not there to make people’s lives difficult, but to have a stick for those who want to step on other people’s toes. It is the same with the rules of good manners. They are not supposed to limit us, but to be an instance to which we can all appeal if someone goes a step too far. I also believe that every company should treat training in business etiquette and dress code as something basic, perhaps as part of the induction program of an office worker, not to mention managerial, executive, etc. positions. Any professional will already know perfectly well what to do with this knowledge and skills on their own. However, it is worth it to receive them. It will not hamper your professional life, and it can certainly help.

Wojciech S. Wocław

Professional master of ceremonies, trainer, managing partner of Życie Communication Agency. He has performed in 10 countries on 4 continents. In 2017 his name appeared in the “Ranking of the best presenters” of PRESS magazine. He is called the favorite announcer of Polish business. He conducts trainings on savoir-vivre, business etiquette and dress code. He is the author of the books “Savoir-vivre, czyli jak ułatwić sobie życie” and “Etykieta w biznesie, czyli jak ułatwić sobie życie w pracy”. His company deals with, among others, implementation of dedicated platforms with online training for companies (www.naszczyt.biz). He works for the largest Polish and foreign companies, teaches at universities. A frequent guest on TV and radio programmes. Find out more at www.wojciechswoclaw.pl.

Last Updated on May 28, 2021 by Łukasz