Just a few months ago I reconnected with my girl Devon, a friend of mine I met when I was living in Washington, DC. She recently launched Etiquette and Class, and as a developmental physiologist has the most practical and relevant thoughts on why etiquette still matters.
I recently helped Devon throw an event and was in awe of how she handled herself with such grace under pressure. She personifies class and I am just thrilled to be sharing her today!
Tell us a little about yourself and your career
My career path has not been a straight trajectory in any way. I’ve changed course so many times, but have found that my past experiences help me to build future ones. I started out in the sign language interpreting world. My undergraduate degree focused on American Sign Language and Deaf Studies which is what brought me to D.C. There is a large Deaf community in D.C. and I knew that if I wanted to work with them, I would need to be here. I ended up working for the governing organization for sign language interpreters for a few years before going back to graduate school.
My graduate degree is in Applied Developmental Psychology — I took my experience working with Deaf adults and children and started looking at how language use and exposure corresponds to typical brain development. While in grad school I interned at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs where I learned how the federal government supports kids with disabilities and from there I got a job at a research firm in Georgetown called American Institutes for Research (AIR) helping to develop special education policy. BUT, while all this was happening, I met and married my husband David whose family owned a Cotillion business. I didn’t even know what Cotillion was before I met him (!) but basically it’s teaching social etiquette and basic ballroom dancing, primarily to 6th-12th graders.
So while I was in grad school, and working as a researcher, I also helped with Cotillion. Right about the time I had my son, David’s mom decided to retire from Cotillion and we took over the family business. We now run our ever-expanding Cotillion program in Northern Virginia.
How does your community of women you surround yourself with support you?
For almost a year after my son was born I worked part time as a researcher at AIR, part time doing Cotillion (really, running your own business means you’re always on call though), and full-time as a mama. It was too much. I had only wanted to work part time, but I found myself working part time during the day, being away several nights for Cotillion as well as doing a lot of the back end business management.
I was spread so thin and it left me feeling like I was failing at everything, especially motherhood, which is my main priority. I was so blessed to have female mentors to go to — bosses of mine who helped me sort through my options to come to a decision to leave my job as a researcher, even when it would mean more work for them to find and train my replacement, and off-load some of my management duties to others. They put my personhood before their needs and helped me see that I needed to treat myself with grace and kindness.
My mom and sisters are also such great supports, always the sounding boards I need and some of the most hard working and smart women I know. And I’m lucky to have examples of female business owners in my family. Both of my grandmothers owned their own businesses, as well as my mother-in-law. I often think about how lucky I am to have been able to grow up seeing women being their own bosses.
Why do you think it’s important for women to understand etiquette?
Especially in 2018, there is no better time for women to understand etiquette. I know some people look at etiquette and social protocol as antiquated, and I get that. I have also met women who think that etiquette isn’t for them because they came from blue collar families. What is most interesting to me (and this is where I put my psychologist hat on) is that often time those who might not have been exposed to etiquette when they were younger display behaviors on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of social protocol. They burp, or curse, or eat sloppily and it’s like they’re doing it on purpose in front of me to prove that they don’t need it.
But what I see is someone who’s scared — someone who’s scared of deserving more and who feels unworthy to elevate themselves. They put on this armor that says they don’t need it, but really, they could benefit the most from having the tools to take themselves to the next level. Etiquette isn’t being prim and proper all the time, it’s knowing how to treat others and yourself in a way that shows respect. Its not being walked all over, but it is knowing how to stand up for yourself in a way that’s effective. It’s also a keen awareness of others which I think this world needs so much more of.
I think women are held to a higher standard than men in the workplace, and while that’s not fair, I do believe that knowing how to act properly is actually a really strategic move. I’ve seen women take down an egotistical male in one, short, soft-spoken sentence, and everyone in the room knows EXACTLY what just happened. It ended up showing a lot more power than had she yelled.
What do you wish you could go back and tell your younger self re: your career aspirations?
Go with it and go for it. It’s okay that it’s not a straight trajectory. It’s okay that your plan changed. Be open to it! And you should never be the smartest person in the room; surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. Don’t worry about being the best at everything, it just limits your own growth. I’d also tell myself that sometimes it’s not even about figuring out how to open doors that seem closed to you, it’s about building your own dang door!
What is your career-related mantra?
“There’s room at the top for everyone.” My mama said this to me when I was younger and had lost out on a role in the Nutcracker that I really, really wanted. She reminded me that my only limitation was myself, and I worked hard and got the role the next year. But what this also taught me was that everyone can shine because we are all different. Especially for women, it sometimes feel like there’s a finite amount of success to go around and that if one person gets it that means another can’t and I don’t think that could be further from the truth.
Go after what you want, and bring others up with you. I truly believe we are stronger together.