Carmel Valley international etiquette consultant devotes career to creating a more thoughtful and courteous approach to life
By Arthur Lightbourn
ContributorWhen it comes to etiquette and protocol, Marie Betts-Johnson doesn’t carry a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt once advised, but she does speak softly, with authority and aided and abetted by a charming Irish brogue.
Based in San Diego since 1989, Betts-Johnson is an Irish-born, internationally recognized etiquette consultant, speaker and columnist who is the founder and president of the International Protocol Institute of California.
We interviewed Betts-Johnson in The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe.
Blond with dark-green eyes and a model-like demeanor, she was dressed impeccably in a black pant suit accented with a pearl-and-diamond style brooch and a single strand of freshwater pearls.
Dressing appropriately for an occasion, she believes, is an essential aspect of etiquette and protocol.
“Whether we like it or not, the person we are on the inside is judged by what we wear on the outside.”
Nor do you have to be wealthy to dress well, she says. “Good taste is what’s important.”
Her choice of a career, she said, came naturally to her. “The Irish are very hospitable. We entertain a lot in our home. And then I was in a convent boarding school and the nuns were tough. The strict rules became engrained in me and, even though I did not see the benefit at the time, they stood me in good stead when called upon.
“Etiquette is not about snobbishness,” she insists. “It’s the opposite. It’s all about being confident in one’s self, knowing what to do and when to do it. And then putting other people at ease and respecting other people. It’s that simple. But you have to know what the rules or guidelines are. I like the word ‘guidelines’ better than ‘rules.’”
The true meaning of etiquette, she believes, is kindness.
She loves the story about the dinner guest who, when presented a finger bowl of water “with that nice slice of lemon it,” mistakenly took a sip. The hostess, not wanting to embarrass her guest, followed his example.
“You see, that’s the essence of etiquette,” Betts-Johnson said. “It’s not about putting anyone down.”
But she also agrees with Mark Twain who said: “A person should be allowed a few redeeming vices, but never bad manners.”
And when it comes to common courtesy these days, sadly, she said, the frustrations are many and great. “Courtesy and thoughtfulness have become endangered practices.”
On the highways, that lack of courtesy or kindness too often results in incidents of road rage, and in supermarket check-out lines (and in restaurants), “we are doomed to listen to feckless cell phone abusers who share the most intimate details of their personal lives.
Then, most recently, there is the emergence of deadly cyber-bullying by “people hiding behind screens.”
But, she still remains optimistic. “If you don’t have hope, what’s the point. And I hope there’ll be more of us going out there and creating the awareness, if nothing more.
“And the good news is that anyone can learn the accepted codes of etiquette and protocol.”
She was born Marie Betts in County Tipperary, Ireland, and grew up as the youngest of three children. Her family’s 300-acre working farm is located about 10 miles from the town of Tipperary. She was educated in convent boarding schools and later went on to Dublin to work in the trusts and wills department of a bank.
Wanting to “see the world,” she joined ALIA, the Royal Jordanian Airline, as a flight attendant.
“My plan was to stay for a year, travel and explore as much of the world as possible. Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time and met a member of the Royal Staff and was offered a job with the Royal Crew on board the 727 Royal Jet of King Hussein and his [American-born] wife Queen Noor.”
As a Royal Crew member from 1982 to 1984, she flew exclusively with the royal couple. On board she had the opportunity to meet with dignitaries and royalty from all over the world, including the 19-year-old newly-married Princess Diana, her husband Prince Charles, the King and Queen of Spain, King Constantine of Greece, Yasser Arafat, and U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz.
In all the time she worked as part of the Royal Crew, she recalled, “There wasn’t one person of high rank who was not gracious.”
“I really learned early in life that ‘the people who mind, don’t matter; and the people who matter, don’t mind.’”
“We interacted with the family when their children accompanied them on trips and, occasionally, the crew joined them for dinners and other outings,” she said.
“Both King Hussein and Queen Noor were devoted to bringing peace to the Middle East and it was my impression that the trappings of royalty were secondary to them,” she once told an Irish magazine.
“This experience was the catalyst for my interest in etiquette. Everything was done perfectly and attention to detail was mandatory. It gave me insight into what it takes to make things run smoothly and the behind-the-scenes effort required in hosting international guests and dignitaries.”
Coming to the U.S., she earned an associates degree in marketing and merchandising at the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion, San Francisco, 1985-87; followed by courses in business etiquette and protocol at The Protocol School of Washington.
In 1989, settling in San Diego, she founded the International Protocol Institute of California. Her experience, training and hands-on expertise enabled her to develop an extensive range of training sessions and seminars in etiquette and protocol customized for individuals, groups, and corporations.
Her corporate clients included IBM, Sony, Gucci Timepieces, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, UCSD, The Thomas Jefferson School of Law and the International Bankers’ Association of California.
Asked what are some of biggest “mistakes” people make in etiquette and protocol, she said, in the corporate world, it’s “not knowing how to make introductions that put people at ease and make you look good too” and “not taking the time to study the culture” before going on a business trip to a foreign country. “It’s too late when you’re there.”
“Dining etiquette is also extremely important…We’re judged by how we dine. We really are judged…There are different styles of dining too — American, Continental, Asian — but, whatever style you have, do it right,” she advises. “Hold the knife and fork correctly. And when the meal is over, know where to place the utensils.”
Also, she said, etiquette changes with the times. “It’s not a static thing.”
In addition to programs covering international corporate business diplomacy, protocol, and cultural awareness, she also offers group etiquette training and individual coaching, including dining etiquette, for teenagers and young adults “because that’s where it all starts” and job interview protocol for college students about to enter the tough, competitive job market.
For more information on Marie Betts-Johnson, you’re invited to visit her International Protocol Institute of California web page on the Internet.
The website also offers a questionnaire that you can use to test your Etiquette IQ. Good luck.
Marie Betts-Johnson is an internationally- recognized etiquette consultant, speaker and columnist. Based in San Diego since 1989, she is the founder and president of the International Protocol Institute of California.
Carmel Valley since 1996
County Tipperary, Ireland
Convent school and business school in Ireland; associates degree in marketing and merchandising at the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion, San Francisco, 1985-87; and studied business etiquette and protocol at The Protocol School of Washington, 1989.
Son, Neil, 20, a student at Mira Costa College
Tennis, reading, walking and playing American folk music on her guitar.
“The Help,” a first novel (now a movie), by Amy Einhorn, about black women in Jackson, Mississippi, who were entrusted to raise white children during the early civil rights era.
“Do the best you can and I think what goes around comes around for sure.”