Jetlagged reflections on picture (im)perfect protocol
Or, the struggle of creating welcoming environments while sleep-deprived
Monday, March 27, 2017 5:37 AM
I got back from another trip to Germany last night, hence the early morning writing session. Jetlag hurts.
But I love this program model. It’s a study tour for congressional District Directors, the heads of a Member of Congress’s office in their constituency. We designed the program to create a cadre of champions for international dialogue beyond the traditional political and financial capitals, beyond Berlin and Washington. Our delegation — intentionally selected to be politically, ideologically, demographically, and geographically diverse , as well as generally new to international travel— would meet with an equally broad swath of meeting partners from across all sectors over the course of five days in one city in Germany, so they could become temporary locals, instead of being shuttled from town to town. And while we save time with in-country transfers, we still pack the schedule full from breakfast to dinner.
It’s hard to understate the proverbial challenge of herding cats — sleep-deprived cats — while you yourself want for a well-regulated circadian rhythm. But when it all goes right — when this group of strangers feels comfortable enough to embrace their own differences and become a cohesive delegation so that they can engage in a candid and truly mutual exchange with our meeting partners — it’s worth it. Or as one of our delegates put it in follow-up:
“The impression that I got from not only the other District Directors, but also from our German counterparts is that on paper we are extremely different, but once we have an opportunity to discuss an issue, they get to see how similar we are. We may have different paths in finding a solution to an issue, but at the end of the day; the solution is what we strive for.”
Of course that process of building memorable and productive relationships takes preparation. And both that preparation and the process itself are guided by protocol.
If I work in a protocol-related field for the rest of my life, I hope I never lose the sense of awe I get when escorting a visiting delegation up to an official building to find flags flying in their honor.
I know flags can be fraught with a feast of potential faux pas, but there is little else more welcoming than seeing your home country’s flag flying in a spray alongside your host’s. It is a small, but powerful gesture that says, “We’ve been preparing for you.”
Of course, I didn’t hang the flags, or even request that they be hung for us. The display was the work of the protocol team at the State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg, as were the immaculate table settings for our meeting with State Minister and Head of the Chancellery, Mr. Klaus-Peter Murawski, and State Secretary Dr. Theresa Schopper.
Indeed, the choice of meeting space must have had some level of intentionality behind it: the room played host to the Länderrat, the council of the governors of the German states in the US Zone of occupied Germany following World War II, which was established by General Lucius D. Clay. And even if this was just the regular meeting room for receiving official guests, the fine staff work of the protocol team made sure that their principals knew to reference the historic nature of the space.
I have found a great camaraderie among protocol professionals.
We collaborate in advance to ensure everything goes right, meaning that we need only share a handshake, a smile, and some quick whispered words on the side as the principals get to work. Interestingly enough, the same small gestures are enough to solve any problems if they arise.
Case in point: after our meeting in the aforementioned historically-appropriate space, we adjourned to the steps of the State Ministry to take a photo with our hosts. I discretely passed the gift to the designated delegate (a flag she had ordered flown over the US Capitol on behalf of the Member of Congress she works for in honor of our hosts, with a certificate certifying the occasion) and stepped back to snap a photo of the presentation. Gazing at the image on my smartphone, I noticed the label mentioned the gift was for the wrong person. We’d had several flags flown for various meeting partners throughout this trip, and in my jetlag-clouded preparations the night before, I had grabbed the wrong one.
But when you have protocol colleagues on your side, such an embarrassment is easily managed. I quickly slipped away to speak with the host’s staff and admitted the mistake. She gracefully took the gift from her principal, secreted it into my bag, and we coordinated my discretely sending the replacement from my hotel later that afternoon — with none the wiser of the error (of course, until they see this post).
In the end, protocol is about more than flags and gifts. Paradoxically, seen one way, it’s about attending to the formalities, so everyone can be informal.
At the age of 29, with a “baby face” and only a Bachelor’s degree in History and German Studies, I sometimes wonder what it is that I have accomplished in my professional life thus far that makes me worthy of the trust 10 adults with extensive careers and responsibilities of their own place in me to organize a week of meetings and activities for them across an ocean. I hope that what I lack in formal training and life experience, I make up for with a genuine passion for creating an environment where everyone feels welcome, recognized, and comfortable enough to participate in a candid exchange of ideas. And when things go awry, well, my youthful aspect, a gentle mea culpa, and the support of other protocol-minded personnel seem to go a long way.