President and Mrs. Obama met with Queen Elizabeth of Britain yesterday. President Obama is new to office, and this is their first meeting--the first visit between the leaders of two of the world's biggest superpowers. During a huge financial crisis. And what does the media talk about? The fact that Michelle Obama touched the Queen. The Times of London heralded, "Protocol is abandoned as Michelle Obama cozies up to queen," which just goes to show that anything can be sensationalized.
Mrs. Obama has done nothing so very terrible; the queen did reach out to touch her first, after all. I highly doubt Mrs. Obama was aware of making a choice about her action--it's such a natural response when someone puts their arm around you to respond in kind, especially for a photograph. To do otherwise would be considered quite rude in normal circumstances. Whether Mrs. Obama knew beforehand or not that one shouldn't touch the queen, I can't believe that she was deliberately throwing protocol out the window. When such an act was clearly a simple mistake, the queen (not surprisingly) did what was best: to simply move on and not embarrass Mrs. Obama by drawing attention to it.
It is however, a good cautionary tale: Manners are still important. Manners tell us what to do in any given situation. When all goes smoothly, the focus stays where I think it's most important: on the interaction or exchange between two people. Put another way, it lets us do what we're there to do: build or establish a relationship and share good information.
When it doesn't go as planned, the focus goes to why not. In this case, to Mrs. Obama touching the queen when according to British protocol, that's not supposed to happen.
This is also the perfect example of a second important lesson: The best kind of etiquette absorbs the mistakes of others; it doesn't make them feel the error of their ways. Why is that so key? For one thing, it's incredibly gracious, a sign of etiquette in action if ever there was one. For another, it gets us back to where we should have been--building a relationship--in the quickest manner possible. Taking someone to task for a genuine mistake or dismissing them by turning away with a figurative pursed mouth and nose in the air keeps the focus on the mistake, or worse, rejects the relationship. By forgiving the gaffe in the moment and correcting course back to where everyone should have been, you are displaying true respect and consideration for the relationship you have invested in building.
Queen Elizabeth and Michelle Obama are two of the most gracious women on the planet, and I think we can all take a leaf from their respective books: After all, etiquette is about acceptance of others and natural grace.