Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, April 2021, Message from the Chairman

Steven FerryMessage from the Chairman

Furore over a fork—and the fork in the road for the modern butlers

A number of media outlets had a few words to say about an ex-butler for the British royal family who recently claimed: «Ladies and gentlemen, remember we always use a knife and fork or chopsticks to eat rice! We do not use our hands or fingers.”

The lesser problem here being the definition of «we,» for certainly truer words were never spoken about the modern British royal family or those of occidental cultures, but what about earlier times, and what about the rest of the world? The main issue for those taking umbrage at this statement was the implication and underlying intent that everyone should do as Westerners do, or more particularly the British royal family, because these ways are superior.

This little spat highlights the crisis of culture as once-dominant western empires, which find their apogee or best expression in the lives of their royal families and the butlers who serve them, are literally being overrun by other cultures, their values questioned and institutions undermined from within.

Any attitude that an intrinsic superiority exists based on wealth, position, or cultural preferences is not likely to be met with much support outside the circles of the privileged few and those who seek to emulate them, and will only erode any support for their culture in general.

Typical responses to this statement, for instance, were: “We don’t need the so-called civilizing colonizers anymore—ours is an older civilization than yours;” others felt the use of toilet paper over a bidet and the habit of wearing shoes indoors called into question the legitimacy of any unsolicited advice from a westerner. There are no doubt good reasons for TP and bidets, and for wearing shoes inside in a colder climate as well as wearing no shoes. Neither are right, just different, and the only error is to close one’s mind to other points of view from which one can learn and improve—a social trend that has become endemic with the advent of social media—people in the isolated world of their smart phones and computers taking extreme and unrelenting points of view and losing any sense of brotherhood or connection with their fellow man and woman.

It’s a cute game to say the port must always be passed clockwise after the host has offered it to the guest of honour on his right, but is it intrinsically superior or right—outside the following of tradition—and is anyone not knowing or following this protocol therefore inferior in some way?

As a Brit brought up in one of the top private (public) schools in England, I was so blinded with arrogance that I would consider with unquestionable certainty that those whom I met while traveling abroad to be the foreigners and therefore not quite right or acceptable in some undefined way. Furthermore, anyone belonging to a lower social class could not possibly have anything to offer of interest. It took a while traveling the world and looking at my own insular culture from an exterior point of view to learn humility, to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual and of each culture, and to accept that perhaps everything British does not happen to be right just because it is British.

It is an interesting observation that the sense of self-importance grows the less certain a person is of their own uniqueness and value—insisting upon one’s own importance is about as acceptable as turning up at a formal wedding in work dungarees and exhibiting disdain for the family and other guests for their attire while lacking the knowledge of the proper dress code and any caring for the expectations, comfort, and happiness of others.

An improved statement regarding how to eat rice might have been:

«The British royal families ate rice (and everything else) with their fingers for about 600 years until 500 years ago when the more refined in Great Britain adopted the fork for eating (note, however, that until just over a century ago, British sailors refused to use forks because they were considered «unmanly,» but it is not certain they were ever served rice!). Fork over fingers has the benefit of keeping one’s fingers and hands clean and of being more hygienic in the event one has not had access to resources for washing ones hands before eating. On the other hand, it seems that eating rice with fingers may be more efficient—can anyone confirm this or explain the benefits of eating rice with one’s fingers?»

This statement is both true and informative, and avoids condescension while granting validity to other cultures.

As we no longer rule the waves and half the planet, we would do better to respect the many cultures that, in many cases, have succeeded thousands of years longer than the English culture (the Chinese have been consuming rice for 9,000 years, and Persia [Iran] was how both rice and forks eventually came to Europe and thence England) and from which we can continue to enrich our own culture—if we can indeed rise sufficiently to confronting the threat to its very existence and take actions to maintain it.

Which brings us to the fork in the road for butlers, particularly British Butlers, and most particularly, ex-royal British Butlers.

Do we keep marching straight forward, noses held high and signaling the appropriate level of sneer, comfortable in our innate superiority; or do we wake up and recognize that we have much to offer the modern world with our understanding of the superior service experience, the care of an employer’s interests and quality possessions—for the delivery of which we depend upon the service of others whom we appreciate and respect? This perspective is appreciated by others and will guarantee the continued relevance and value of our profession in this world—whereas an innate sense of superiority will not.

PS: For those of you interested. here is a very interesting article on forks.

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people- skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.