Does your boss describe your handshake as like a wet
fish? Does the idea of hosting a dinner party give you nightmares featuring 12-foot walking lamb shanks? Fear not: There is help at hand. The Globe asked Charles MacPherson, author of The Butler Speaks and the Canadian major-domo who runs North America’s only registered butler school, located in Toronto, for advice.
Even the most refined of us have made the mistake of asking for a condiment when it’s not on the table, or eating an edible plate garnish, acts you warn against in your book. What faux pas do even well-bred people make?
I think that the world is changing so fast and so quickly that the faux pas the well-bred make is sometimes to be too stringent about the past. I think that’s a mistake. I used to believe it was not appropriate to send a thank-you note by e-mail, but I’m starting to understand the world is changing and you have to change with it – that train is gone. You get on the train or you’re left in an archaic world.
What’s your personal bugbear?
My personal thing is just the lack of awareness of others, the people who think it doesn’t matter what restaurant we’re at, if they get a telephone call, it’s okay to answer it. If your six-year-old son is at home sick with a babysitter, I don’t have a problem you giving the babysitter instructions to call you if the fever increases. But why do the other people at the table have to be subjected to that? Put your phone on vibrate and take it outside.
What are the most important household tools today? Should we all have the so-called “household procedurals manual?”
I think if you had a household procedurals manual, you were trying to run a very large house. Part of the essence of my book is to give you all professional tools of a butler for practical, modern situations, to show you how to apply what a professional does in his job at your level. It’s about taking the tips and tricks of how a butler runs a household efficiently and applying it to your life.
Is there some rule of etiquette people worry too much about?
They worry too much about manners. For example, one of the questions I get all the time is: When I finish the meal, do I put my cutlery at 3 o’clock or 6 o’clock? I don’t care. Just put the knife and fork together. Put them in that area. People stress about trying to be too perfect sometimes, and that means they don’t relax, and it puts the people around them at a level that they don’t relax. If you’re relaxed, everyone is relaxed, and that’s the secret of entertaining.
You’ve trained hotel staff all over the world, including at the Four Seasons in Shanghai. What country has the best hospitality?
It depends on how you define service. If we just want to talk about numbers, then it’s Asia, where labour is cheap. But bodies don’t necessarily mean better service. So do you want an untrained skill set versus fewer people who are very well trained? I prefer fewer people fussing around who know what to do. London and Paris are still the true classic cities I go to and think how lucky I am to be here.
[The fashion designer] Oscar de la Renta once told me he defines luxury as a feeling. He talked about going to a hotel in Paris where they served him coffee in a Limoges cup and water in Christofle crystal but didn’t pay any attention to him – and it was a $40 coffee. Then he was on a beach in the Dominican Republic and had the best cup of coffee for a dollar. Luxury is all about feeling, and that’s what I love. You can find that feeling sometimes in the oddest places. It’s not the coffee itself in the Dominican Republic, but how the coffee is served to you that makes you feel so wonderful.
As a butler, you were no doubt valued for your discretion – but perhaps you could tell us which types of clients are the hardest. Aristocrats? Rock stars?
The client who doesn’t pay any attention to you, and you go through their assistants. Whether it’s a politician or a movie star or a talk-show host: If they’re not going to give you the time of day, it’s a recipe for complete failure. You never get them to explain how to do [what they want] so that it’s truly successful.
You’ve devoted huge amounts of space to housecleaning. I think a lot of ordinary people find it difficult to deal with any household staff, even a weekly cleaner. Do you have any tips for us?
The biggest mistake when you hire a day person to come clean your house is not communicating what you want because you’re embarrassed. It sets the relationship up for failure. Just say, Mary: I’m really glad you’re coming to clean once a week. I’ve made a list of things that are really important to me. Change the sheets once a week … or empty the fridge and wash it out properly. People have different priorities, and she may never dust the books because they’re not important to her.
This interview has been condensed and edited.