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Meghan Markle’s pre-royal ‘finishing lessons’ and an etiquette of equality

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When British tabloids reported last month Meghan Markle was to undergo a crash course in “princess training” prior to her marriage to Prince Harry this month, many an egalitarian recoiled.

In speaking to the tabloid, a source close to the royal family said of Markle’s education, “(Harry) has a lifetime of nurturing and breeding behind him but Meghan has a matter of weeks to learn what she needs to be accepted at the royal court.” Included in the curricula are how to exit a car (with legs together, at the same time), which words to cut from her vocabulary (for example, “pants” — which mean “underpants” in the U.K.), the appropriate way to address European nobility of different rank, and even the “softening” of her “American twang.”

{mosads}Markle’s education in royal customs are intended to help her navigate her new cultural environment. “If she was left without guidance,” said the royal informant, “the marriage would begin in the same vein as Diana and Charles — with the bride feeling helpless and alone.”

At first glance, this may seem patronizing to Markle. But it importantly highlights that true civility is a two-way street. It requires an outsider to do their best to understand the norms of a new place, but it also requires the locals to interpret the outsider’s words and actions with grace and charity. Manners are, as American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. wrote, the “letter of introduction” that allows us to engage with new people and get along with strangers.

The royal family’s insistence on such preparation may well stem from a moment in the first few months of Barack Obama’s presidency, when, while in England for a G20 summit, Michelle did the unthinkable: she gave the Queen a hug.

Contact with the monarch is verboten according to royal protocol, yet the Queen graciously took no offence and even returned the embrace. Michelle Obama’s actions, and the reaction to Markle’s schooling in royal etiquette, reflect a uniquely American outlook: Why shouldn’t she show the Queen affection the way that she would with anyone else, queen or commoner?

Meghan Markle’s new education and Michelle Obama’s embrace remind us that concern for social norms are not merely superficial displays. By respecting their inherent dignity, comfort, and wellbeing, norms are also important ways that we demonstrate consideration of others.

George Washington had this same courtly decorum that both Markle and Obama encountered in mind when he contemplated how a uniquely American etiquette ought to look. After all, he was the leader of a democratic republic, but he was also a member of the gentry who respected tradition and sought to maintain respect for the grandeur of the America’s highest office. He obtained his cabinet’s advice, and between the varied opinions that John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson offered on the topic, Washington found a middle ground between the class-conscious manners of Europe and an egalitarian American social philosophy.

The result was, as American writer De Benneville Randolph Keim wrote, “stately dignity of the old colonial school more or less modified by the averaging tendencies of the continental school.”

Washington’s reconciliation of Old World etiquette to republican ideals was quickly integrated into early American government, extending to the end of his tenure. In his Farewell Address, he insisted that it was the duty of Americans everywhere — whether it be across the pond or in our own backyard — to show justice and kindness to all those one encountered, to King and to citizen alike:

“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”

Almost anticipating the strong backlash to Markle’s subjection to “finishing lessons” in royal etiquette and elocution, Washington appreciated that a code that respects the basic humanity of all is superior to one that merely imitates the pageantry of the Old World hereditary aristocracy.

Washington — and, according to those who know them personally, Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle — embodied the uniquely American civility that Keim described as more than “empty gesticulations” and “blandishments,” in favor of “dignity, tempered with freedom, reserve mingled with affability, and conversation softened with geniality and enlivened with wit.”

Markle, Obama, and Washington remind us of the importance of establishing and following social norms but not unthinkingly, with a continual revision in the direction of an increasingly flourishing society.

Washington, a devotee of the egalitarian spirit of the American Revolution, was familiar with the all-too-human tendency of people to erect arbitrary divisions between themselves. When it comes to the types of rules that Markle is now expected to know, such as distinguishing one’s fish knife from one’s butter knife (let alone knowing what a fish knife is!), Washington teaches us that what matters most in social interactions is respecting the humanity and dignity in every person we encounter — Queen or commoner.

When Edmund Burke wrote in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” that “the age of chivalry is gone,” he lamented a society violently and thoughtlessly unmoored from long- standing tradition and values. Using a method that Burke would have endorsed — one that Markle will (hopefully!) continue to embody, and that Obama personified in her exchange with the Queen — Washington took the best from the past and melded it with the needs of the present.

Meghan Markle’s “princess schooling” highlight that we have different norms and social structures than our friends across the pond. Yet she, along with Obama and Washington, remind us that true civility both here and there is grounded in a fundamental respect for the dignity of all.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. She earned an MSc in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, and recently left a post at the U.S. Department of Education to work on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.

Tags Barack Obama civility Etiquette Habits Meghan Markle Michelle Obama Michelle Obama Popular culture Prince Harry

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