As I prepared for my interview with Diane Gottsman, the founder and director of The Protocol School of Texas, my mind started whirring. Earlier that morning she had changed our meeting from a coffee locale to breakfast at a restaurant. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but as I made my nest at the table with my laptop, latte and silverware, I began to worry.

Would she think me rude to type as we talked rather than focusing my full attention on her? What should I order, if anything at all, so I didn’t make any eating faux pas? Should I stand up when greeting her? Suddenly I felt rusty, my etiquette arsenal sorely in need of refreshment.

I looked up and was relieved to find kind eyes, a radiant smile and a friendly hand thrust my way. Whew! I was immediately at ease as we sat down to dine and delve into the daunting world of protocol.

BLADES OF GRASS

“I always knew I would teach in some fashion. Even as a child I knew I wanted to work with people. I remember sitting in my backyard as a young child and pretending all the blades of grass were my students. I would teach them all sorts of things,” laughs Gottsman, who, not surprisingly, is an only child. Indeed, she did teach grade school after receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Incarnate Word.

Fascinated with people and how they function, she went on to get a master’s degree in social gerontology from Incarnate Word. “I knew I wanted to do something that empowered people, but I didn’t want to be a counselor,” she recalls. Soon after she finished her thesis, she became a professional fund-raiser, first at Christian Senior Services and then for the Children’s Shelter of San Antonio, putting her passion for working with children to good use. “I remember rocking a baby in a body cast and looking into those clear, smiling brown eyes and seeing such hope,” she sighs. “Who wouldn’t do everything in their power to make sure that child had a bright future?”

Oddly enough, it was her fund-raising career that catapulted Gottsman into the profession she’s in today. “While meeting and dining with representatives of major corporations, I realized many executives were unaware of the effect poor manners can have on business dealings,” she explains. “People do business with people they like. The bottom line is actions earn respect and communicate respect. I saw a niche that would allow me to work in the field of human dynamics and spend time with my young children.

That was 10 years ago. Today, she customizes protocol and etiquette programs for corporations, universities, nonprofit organizations and individuals simply looking to fine-tune their skills.

FLY, RUN, JUMP!

Gottsman went to Jack Downey, the executive director of the Children’s Shelter and her boss at the time. “I decided to follow the advice he’d always given me, which was, ‘Don’t tell me why it can’t be done, tell me how you’ll do it,’” she recalls. She laid out her plans to open a business focused on etiquette, and he was immediately supportive — even though it meant she would be leaving the shelter. “He told me to spread my wings and fly,” remembers Gottsman. She says Downey is one of four people who have positively influenced her protocol career. “I’ve known Jack for 20 years, and he continues to inspire me to work hard,” she says.

She also took to heart the advice of one of her college professors, Dr. Marilyn Walker: “She told me to ‘just keep running and don’t turn back,’ which is exactly what I’ve done!”

Gottsman counts Dr. P.M. Forni, founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, as a mentor for his emphasis on civility.

“Dr. Forni teaches us that to live a long, healthy and serene life, we need the crucial help of a network of caring people,” says Gottsman. “We need a social support, and in order to gain and keep that support, we need social skills. I like to focus on the details — respectful mannerisms that say much more about a person’s character than their words.”

Many thoughtful words in his book moved her, such as, “I remain a flawed messenger bearing a good message.” Dr. Forni also says, “Nice guys don’t have to finish last. Not if they are also smart, imaginative, dedicated and persevering.” Gottsman holds that belief as truth.

Apparently Dr. Forni admires Gottsman’s work, too, specifically a book she wrote titled Pearls of Polish: An Etiquette Guide for Today’s Busy Woman. He is quoted on the back cover, exclaiming, “What a gem! This little book of gracious wisdom deserves a great audience. I urge all the women readers to embrace it and then slip it into the pockets of the men in their lives.”

Without her fourth mentor, she might not have published her book. Mike Gaffney, local publisher of a number of magazines (including this one) and owner of PixelWorks Corporation, encouraged her to pursue her dream of publishing. “He told me to close my eyes and jump,” she remembers.

“I’m living proof of the value of role models. It doesn’t matter who they are, so long as they inspire and motivate you,” Gottsman says. “Pearls of Polish was a product of Mike Gaffney’s publishing guidance; my work ethic is a product of what Jack Downey taught me; and my heart believes what P.M. Forni espouses — ‘Civility is crucial to the achievement of a well-balanced and happy life.’”

In the beginning she encountered plenty of naysayers who said her company would never succeed. “Now I fly all over the world helping my clients develop the leadership skills and interpersonal mannerisms that are the marks of good character,” she says proudly. “Success is about perseverance, determination and, of course, good manners.”

DEMYSTIFYING ETIQUETTE

Gottsman says proper etiquette is not about looking good at someone else’s expense. “People think that money buys class, but it doesn’t matter how much money you have,” she explains. “I want to demystify etiquette. It’s all about being genuine and approachable. Artificial gestures are very apparent. We’ve all encountered people with a ‘higher than thou’ attitude who have a condescending way about them, but the reality is, that’s just bad manners.”

In fact, good manners can make you more satisfied and successful in all aspects of your life. According to research done by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and the Stanford Research Institute, more than 85 percent of job success is based on “soft skills” — our personal conduct and the ability to put others at ease. “Corporate clients expect five-star treatment, and in today’s fiercely competitive market you are seldom given a second chance,” says the San Antonio native. “Good manners are a fundamental part of one’s professional skill set.”

Gottsman believes treating others with respect and thoughtfulness, which is the basis of proper protocol, even enhances our attractiveness. “Think about when you meet someone and think they’re kind of cute. Then you get to know them, and they become beautiful. Chances are, that inner beauty stems from a true regard for other people,” she says.

Fortunately for Gottsman, her job security is virtually guaranteed. “Everyone can benefit from a little fine-tuning,” she says with a sincere smile.

‘TIS THE SEASON TO BE THE PERFECT GUEST

With holiday parties here, it’s time to brush up on guest etiquette. Diane Gottsman advises, “A sophisticated guest knows she must ‘sing for her supper’ even if there is not food involved. Help your hostess be at her best by making sure she doesn’t have to worry about you.”

Review these additional gems from Gottsman’s book, Pearls of Polish: An Etiquette Guide for Today’s Busy Woman, and you’ll be the diamond in the rough this holiday season!

The primary role of a good guest is to make your host glad he invited you. Making conversation with other guests is an “art,” and those that master it are invited back more often. Rather than talking to only those she knows, a good guest will introduce herself to perfect strangers and make them feel comfortable and at ease.

HOSTESS GIFTS

Seasoned guests know what is expected of them. It’s always nice to extend a gesture of thanks to the host by bringing a small gift. If you want to bring flowers, sending them ahead of time is the most appreciated form of delivery.

If you are familiar with the hostess’ taste, presenting her with something she will enjoy at a later date is always an appreciated effort. Perhaps she collects vintage napkins or is a wine aficionado.

Don’t monopolize your host’s time. As much as you would like to “catch up” on what is going on in his life, keep in mind that your host must greet and mingle with everyone. A typical conversation with anyone at a party is four to six minutes. Consider party conversation similar to a dance, and “waltz” around the room with ease.

GUEST FAUX PAS

Arriving late— Cocktail parties are more forgiving, but when invited to someone’s home for dinner, a late guest is a rude guest.

Arriving empty-handed— Be sure to acknowledge your host’s efforts with an effort of thanks of your own.

Not greeting or saying goodbye to your host — When you arrive, and especially when you depart, always let your host know.

Forgetting the thank-you note — Send a handwritten note out within 48 hours of the party. Mention something special you enjoyed at the event. Your efforts, once again, will be noticed and appreciated.

Author: Kelly A. Goff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams