Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Etiquette, Diplomacy and a Tap on the Head

Jean-Claude Juncker - "I’m a hands-on kind of president…" voted against him.

Did EC president Juncker break protocol by tapping Muscat’s head?

He is the President of the European Commission so he will touch your head if he wants to...

When does a friendly head-tap go just too far? Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat doesn’t seem to mind: at least he takes Jean Claude Juncker’s patronising tap on his forehead – being of dimensions, ample – like a good sport. Chin up. Get on with it. The Luxembourgish fool has probably had the cognac added in his omelette this morning.

What do you think? Do you think that Juncker, the former prime minister who resigned over his country’s secret service’s illegal wiretapping, is ‘avin a laff’? Perhaps putting the whippersnapper in place? Or is he being simply nice – you can hear him greet Muscat as ‘young man’ after all, which he is in the world of European politics, and then proceeding to tap his head as one would…

There is a precedent to the Muscat head-tap: Juncker’s fascination with the depilated cranium was in full view when he startled a studious-looking Silvio Berlusconi by giving him a couple of Benny Hill head-taps.

We asked an expert in diplomatic protocol, and a former career diplomat, Kris Bonnici, to tell us what he thinks of Juncker’s pate-pat and whether Monsieur le President was being a little bit too osé or perhaps showing us who's boss at the Berlaymont.

“Is head-tapping allowed according to protocol and etiquette in the first place? Recent research shows that non verbal communication is four times as powerful as words. That’s because our brain is still programmed to think like that of our prehistoric ancestors. When we encounter someone new, whether in a sophisticated office or a glamorous reception, if it is initially upsetting, it will trigger our flight or fight response.”

Bonnici says protocol, now dating thousands of years since the court of Pharoah Amenhotep III, has not always been followed. “When Rollo the Viking was given Normandy he was required to pledge allegiance to Charles, King of France, in a ceremony where Rollo kisses the king’s foot in a symbolic gesture of feudal allegiance.

“Instead, Rollo sent one of his warriors to do the honours, who lifted the king’s foot so high that the king fell to the ground. The non verbal gesture here can be interpreted easily: the Vikings were barbaric, the French were weak.”

But Bonnici is adamant that the prime-ministerial noggin is out of bounds from unwanted fingering, and that means that Juncker’s caress was unwelcome – especially in full view of the TV cameras.

“Regardless of what message Jean-Claude Juncker wanted to convey, or whatever crossed his mind, Prime Ministers cannot be tapped on the head. “Such a breach of protocol is not in the European Commission’s interest (which has used great tact to reach consensus in the past), nor that of an EU member state’s,” Bonnici says, who adds that other countries have great respect for Europe’s protocol and etiquette.

“It’s at the basis of the soft power it is cashing upon: relations with other governments, businesses especially Europe’s fashion industry, arts, cuisine, and luxury car exports, and also the perception of Europeans in general. So please, no head-tapping.”

Kris Bonnici: Making a good impression is important. "An article on Forbes listed seven non-verbal ways to strike a first impression in the first seven seconds of an encounter. I thought it was worth noting and explaining them."
  1. Attitude adjustment: You have to settle in a positive state of mind and feeling.
  2. Poise your posture: Watch a film and see how a proud (not arrogant) person carries himself. Head straight, shoulders back, standing tall, it is a given that this person conveys competence and confidence.
  3. Smile: Perhaps the most powerful element in establishing a friendship. Employ it and like everything else, do so genuinely.
  4. Eye contact: people who are interested in you will look you in the eye. It is a sign of honesty and openness. Make it a point to remember the eye colour of the people you meet. It will also help you remember their names.
  5. ‘Eyebrow flash’: raise your eyebrows to acknowledge the other person. This gesture cuts across culture as a symbol of recognition.
  6. Shake hands properly: because studies show it is the equivalent of three hours interaction, which you can achieve in a heartbeat. And time is money.
  7. Lean forward: even if only slightly it will show that you are interested and engaged. Just remember not to trespass the other person’s personal space.

This article was written by Matthew Vella, 14 September 2014, for Malta Today

Submitted by contributor Kristian Bonnici- Before founding Diplomatic Envoy Consultancy, Kris was a career diplomat. He worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malta, in the Protocol and Consular Services Department, and then spent tours of duty in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. Serving as Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy in Cairo and Canberra, his diplomatic duties included protocol and etiquette and public diplomacy. Kris speaks English, Italian and Maltese fluently, and has a fair knowledge of French, Arabic and Russian.