I have always been glad that I did not grow up with servants. As far as I was concerned, it was one less thing to be ashamed of. Truth is, I’m not very good at being The Boss. I don’t know how to give orders. Being waited on makes me uncomfortable.
This is no claim of sainthood. I’m more than capable of being a controlling, witchy, whiney pain in the neck. I’m just not good at playing the benevolently despotic Lady of the Manor.
Now, suddenly, I find myself in a situation that is causing me to wish I were more adept at being the gracious Grande Dame.
I am speaking of my current circumstances, which find me aboard the elegant, old-fashioned ocean liner Queen Mary in an atmosphere overflowing with faithful retainers challenging me to observe proper etiquette.
Onboard the QM2 we have: stewards, sommeliers, barkeeps, waiters, cleaners, chefs, flower arrangers, powder room scrubbers, deck washers, pursers, security personnel, plumbers and electricians; three or four people serving dinner; four or five casino attendants hovering over anyone foolish enough to gamble; gentleman hosts on the dance floor every night.
I should feel regal, right? Unfortunately I’m too neurotic for that. Instead I’m in a perpetual panic over what to say, what to do, what to pay, how to approach, how to leave alone, how to say hello and goodbye to these lovely people who are spoiling me at every turn.
I know this is all very nauseatingly bourgeois. Everyone should have such problems, right? Well, in a way, everyone does these days. As our world becomes increasingly populated with service industries, awkward customer-server relationships are on the rise. The human interaction dilemmas challenging me on this vacation at sea are more critical and important than ever—for all of humanity!
Perhaps I should illustrate the conundrum with an anecdote.
This morning, at breakfast in the informal cafeteria on Deck Seven, I helped myself to cereal and fruit and made my way to a quiet corner table to read a book. I was hoping to be as unobtrusive and undemanding as possible, thereby avoiding any embarrassing breaches of protocol.
Alas, I did not succeed. A waiter approached and, seeing me put down my spoon to turn a page in my book, attempted to remove my half-eaten breakfast. “Are you done with this, Madame,” he intoned in a solemn baritone, reaching for the bowl. “No I am not, thank you,” I said, failing to repress an ugly spark of irritability. Offended, he recoiled, leaving me in a state of disgrace. A second later, he was back. “But surely Madame you don’t need THIS,” he said triumphantly, grabbing an empty cereal box and used paper napkin from the table’s surface. “No, you can have it,” I said, feeling ashamed and defeated.
Yesterday it was the beautiful powder room stewardess whom I insulted by crashing her plastic barricade in a moment of desperation, and stepping over her bucket and mop en route to the commode. Even worse, on another recent occasion I humiliated myself completely with a loud nervous coughing fit in response to a suave gentleman host who asked me to dance.
Clearly I was in desperate need of an Etiquette Intervention. The only question was, where to look?
The answer came to me finally in a glorious Epiphany onboard the ship’s elevator this morning as I attempted to flee the shameful breakfast scene for the solitude of my cabin.
Whilst in the lift it occurred to me that a number of my fellow passengers who were British used two salutations to great advantage in almost every social situation: “Thank you so very much,” and “I’m so terribly sorry.”
Then came the AHA moment. I realized that if I stuck to these two basic phrases, augmented by the occasional obese tip, I could ace almost any situation onboard. If anyone knew how to pull off the Lord and Lady of the Manor bit, it would certainly be my class-savvy fellow travelers from the British Isles.
Well, I am happy to report that the strategy is, as they say in GB, absolutely BRILLIANT. It is now smooth sailing for me in the server relations department.
Brittania rocks. Brittania rules the waves.