On the Job

Becoming the Master of Etiquette as a Yacht Stew

22 March 2023 By Kylie O'Brien
Fine china and crystal with table linens

Kylie O’Brien has worked on some of the world’s most magnificent vessels with amazing people for more than 13 years. A graduate of The Australian College of Applied Psychology, she is the author of Crew Wanted, The Stewardess Bible, The Chief Stewardess Bible, The Inside Job, and has been a monthly contributor to Dockwalk magazine for more than five years.

Protocol, refinement, formalities, breeding, culture, demeanor, elegance, and diplomacy — in the world of the überwealthy, like many other things, the rules of etiquette are in a constant state of fluidity, especially when you are crew on board a superyacht. In other words, as a part of the interior department, you need to go with the flow when it comes to the ever-changing rules of decorum, as many superyacht guests often do. So, while I am confident that you all understand what etiquette means, knowing how to behave in challenging situations is essential to your professional success. Understanding the unwritten laws of protocols will make you feel personally secure should a difficult situation arise.

Good manners are a set of polite behaviors learned at home from a very early age. Hence, the pleases and thank-yous that have been a constant norm of conduct in your life and have served you well. However, as we all know, good manners can only get you so far. These norms tend to be generalized and are culturally defined. Etiquette, however, is a specific set of conventional rules laid down by society. This means that society expects a particular code of conduct from you, which allows the individual to navigate even the most complex social situations while considering the host's culture, tradition, and heritage.

I have chosen several scenarios to illustrate the statement above. For example, how would you help the primary charter guest greet a foreign diplomat on board for the first time? How could you guide an awkward guest who does not know what cutlery to use during a seven-course meal? Or what would you do as the chief stew if a guest's friend kept eating the rim of a $200 baccarat wine glass due to the consumption of an unknown substance?

Being the host with the most is a skill that takes time to master. Moreover, it's a fine art of diplomacy and tact, especially since you are not the yacht's owner nor the primary charter guest. In fact, you are still the hired help. So how can you, as the crew, navigate the fine line between honoring the socially defined etiquette rules and the boss's wishes while interjecting your knowledge of formalities without offending the guests?

In truth, as a superyacht chief stew, you must be the master of many skills, and the following ability is one that i have had cause to relate to over the years: "you must act like a duck — calm and unruffled on the surface and paddling like hell underneath. " you also need to be a master of body language, as well as being able to read a room and adapt to change enthusiastically.

While I am confident that you all understand what etiquette means, knowing how to behave in challenging situations is essential to your professional success.

It is not enough to know how to greet a single foreign diplomat. As a superyacht crewmember, you must know how to welcome all foreign diplomats, including those guests whom you may not usually receive, such as people who are visually impaired, wheelchair users, or people with learning difficulties.

You must know which cutlery to use for every course, including all types of Wetern, Asian, and Arabic cuisine. And you also need to know how to disarm a highly charged guest who may not fully be in control of their faculties.

The first culturally defined examples are relatively easy to master with a little cultural research. For instance, without verbalizing too much, offer slippers to the guests who prefer to have something on their feet while on board and a cool towel to the overheated and tired traveler. These small nonverbal gestures will ensure the boss's foreign guests feel comfortable on board. Or simply replace and rearrange the cutlery as if the guest has used the correct utensils in a completely normal way. The last instance will take a little more time to master; this is where your professional skills and knowledge of culturally appropriate etiquette come in.

When faced with a difficult situation, remember to call upon your instincts, interpersonal communication, and refined etiquette skills. This means observing the guests, listening to their requests, and watching their body language for subtle cues such as facial expressions, the physical space maintained within the group, the tone of their voice, and hand gestures. Luckily, serving guests under the influence of an unknown substance does not happen too often. Still, you must first try to calm the situation while saving face for the boss or host without calling the big, burly crew member to escort them off the yacht.

In the third example above, a decision had to be made to save the host from embarrassment and an expensive bill for the damaged baccarat glasses. So, i simply swapped all the crystal wine glasses for a cheaper glass generally used for lunch. The meal concluded without further incident, and the charter guest left for a club with his friend. The primary charter guest still faced a large bill for the crystal glass, but we saved the guest under the influence from possible further physical harm caused by eating crystal glass.

Becoming Little Miss/Mr. Etiquette is more than simply knowing international protocols and manners. It is about understanding human nature, finding a suitable tone, and moving positively with the changes. Mastering these subtle signs can give you the confidence to make changes that need to occur for the safety and dignity of your guests.

This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue of Dockwalk.


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