Protocol for awkward moments

An etiquette expert came to my city’s chamber of commerce recently to help us with our “awkward moments.” I’m pretty sure my fly was down. By the end of her presentation, I was convinced again of something I’ve long believed but don’t always remember: most communication is non-verbal.

At one point, she had us make circles with each thumb and index finger while holding our other fingers straight out. She pointed out that the “b” on the left hand stands for bread; the “d” stands for drink. Formal dinner stuff.

(I actually prefer “BMW”: bread, meal, water. But then again, I’ve never been on The Today Show talking about how to hug your boss’s wife.)

Then, she said, “Hold your ‘d’ above your head. Now, bring it down to your chin.” I brought mine to my temple. Most of us did. Why? Because that’s what she did with her hand. The non-verbal trumped the verbal.

I sat up straighter. I just knew this protocol princess was reading me like a book. She’s about to turn my hereditary awkwardness into a teachable moment for the group.

Somehow, I nodded and smiled just enough to fend off her inclinations to expose. Then she asked us to think of a word that summarized who we’re trying to be. Her examples: powerful, authentic, confident. The only word I could think of was “less-awkward.” (Powerful people hyphenate, by the way.)

She went on talking about greetings (use “hello,” not “hi”) and hand shakes with the opposite sex (men, no limp fish; women, no tourniquets). She covered hand placement (not over privates), feet placement (obtuse angle) and name tag placement (right side).

People who don’t speak at a meeting are more noticed than those who do, she said. When you smile, show your teeth – even if you don’t have any. When you interact, first be interested, then be interesting. In a business meeting, keep your hands above the table most of the time.

I noticed a tension at play. On one hand, we should elevate non-verbals, pay attention to them. They’re saying (1) more than we think and (2) more than our mouths.

On the other hand, we should minimize non-verbals. Get them out of the way as much as possible so that our words mean something. Don’t let non-verbals distract.

As in much of life, the goal is unity. Let the words your mind conceives match your bodily actions. And let your body act according to what your mind has decided you want to be.

And, as in much of life, this union occurs only with practice. The way to overcome uncomfortable moments is to be willing to be uncomfortable for a time.

For example, when I feel awkward, I put my hands in my pockets, subconsciously seeking protection. Instead, the protocol princess wants me to rest my hands at my side or clasp them gently above my waist. Doing so feels awkward but I can see how it communicates greater ease and confidence.

Feeling awkward to overcome awkwardness. I do love paradoxes.

The protocol princess was Diane Gottsman of The Protocol School of Texas. She addressed the graduating class of Leadership Boerne, a program of the Greater Boerne Chamber.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at

2 Responses to “Protocol for awkward moments”

  1. 1 Cindy Brockwell May 31, 2014 at 16:38

    Love, love, love this one, Kevin!!  So sorry about Rep. Branch.  We voted for him!  

    Cindy Brockwell

    “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NLT)


  2. 2 jessestroup June 2, 2014 at 12:52

    Thank you for that one.  I can always count on a good laugh from your articles; that helps the truth sink in easier. 

      Jesse R. Stroup Director of Spiritual Care Lifeline Chaplaincy 511 N. Akard suite 202 Dallas, TX 75201

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