When Tradition Meets Millennials: Going Beyond Etiquette with Bonnie Tsai

We all fall victim to Society’s rules of etiquette and tradition. There is a delicate balance between being polite and falling into stereotypes. When we met Bonnie Tsai, the founder of Beyond Etiquette, we knew we had to talk her about her take on things.

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What is Beyond Etiquette? And how do you define etiquette?

Beyond Etiquette is a consulting firm specializing in etiquette and communication training for companies and individuals. We offer clients a unique experience and set of tools with which they may differentiate themselves both domestically and globally. We focus on communication with decorum and not simply etiquette because as technology progressed we, as humans, have forgotten the power behind our words. Conversations have become abbreviated, messages often need to be succinct and effective so you don’t lose your audience’s attention. Yet some of the most difficult conversations we have require elaborate sentences and explanations to ensure our audience understands our message. That’s where I come in, I offer experience in difficult conversations, international etiquette and protocol, and cross-cultural communication.

Etiquette to me is all about respect, kindness, and consideration for others; the rules of etiquette may have evolved and changed, but the essence of it has always remained the same, which is being respectful of others and making those around you feel comfortable. I always love to share this example with my clients; let’s say you’re in Rome about to sit down to have pizza with your friends after a day of walking around. You notice that there’s a knife and fork placed in front of you, but when the pizza arrives your friends just start eating the pizza with their hands. Do you then choose to eat the pizza with the knife and fork or do you follow suit and eat the pizza with your hands? The answer would be the latter, and why is that? Because even though eating your pizza with a fork and knife may be the “right” way, it isn’t the option that makes everyone else feel the most comfortable. You wouldn’t want to appear snobby or make your friends feel like they’re being too casual by using their hands. Hence etiquette isn’t always about what the rule book says, it simply serves as a guideline to help you navigate different social and professional situations.

How did you decide that you wanted to be an etiquette expert?
Truth be told, I never intended or expected myself to start an etiquette and communication consulting firm; I always thought I was going to stay in advertising and marketing. After graduating from University of Southern California in 2013, I decided to take a year off to travel, spend time with my family, intern, and take a few job interviews. During this time, I became self-conscious about my behavior and presentation, I was asking questions like, “Am I dressed appropriately for this event?”, “Should my elbows be on the table?”, or “How do I make proper introductions?”. These questions were constantly in the back of my mind, and no matter how much I researched on the internet I always got different answers. Therefore, I decided I wanted to go straight to the source, which was Institut Villa Pierrefeu (IVP) in Glion, Switzerland. Before attending IVP in the summer of 2014, a good friend of mine introduced me to Institute Sarita in Beijing, China, who’s founder also attended IVP; it was also where I received my formal Chinese etiquette training. By the end of July 2014, I received my diplomas from both Institute Sarita and Institut Villa Pierrefeu; I headed back to Los Angeles to work in advertising.

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In mid-2017, when I was starting to look around for other jobs, my old boss/mentor gave me my biggest revelation, she told me, “I don’t think you actually want to stay in advertising” and that changed the whole game for me. I started thinking about what I wanted to do and offer to the world. My overall goal and desire in life has always been to help people, but helping people is a vague and ambiguous term; therefore, I needed to think about the assets and skills I have to offer in order to help others. I considered going back to school to get another degree, but I felt like I was wasting valuable time in school to reach the same goal in the future when I can simply kickstart that same journey now. Through the encouragement and inspiration from friends and family, I decided to combine my etiquette and communication skills to create courses to help people feel empowered and confident to thrive in any situation.

People often ask me why I teach decorum with communication in my courses and not just simply etiquette; it’s because I’ve witnessed and personally experienced how good communication transform relationships. I believe that having good etiquette will open doors for you, and having great communication skills is how you strengthen those relationships.

What was the journey like for you in creating Beyond Etiquette? (talk about the good, bad, pretty, and ugly parts)
The journey of creating Beyond Etiquette has been a rewarding yet challenging one because of how much I’ve learned about myself, my values, and the wonderful community I have built around me. When Beyond Etiquette was just an idea, I wasn’t entirely sold on whether or not it would be successful or even operational, but everyone around me was telling me how it was a great Idea and how much it’s needed. Even my mom believed in me and growing up in a traditional Taiwanese family that means A LOT, which then proved to me that my idea had potential.

The beginning wasn’t easy, I felt overwhelmed because it seemed like an endless list of tasks I needed to accomplish before I can even launch my company. However, about 6 months into my strategy process, I decided to bring in my old colleague and trusted friend, Don, as my consultant to help me organize all the different trains of thought going on in my head. He asked me 20 questions about my brand and the answers didn’t come easy; they were deep soul-searching questions on what I envision the company to be and how to get there. These questions were about the company, but they were also about me as an individual since I’m devoting everything to this company and it ultimately reflects who I am and what I believe in as a person. Throughout this process, I learned that I actually have a lot of self-doubt and lack of self-love; every decision I made I was second guessing myself. The surprising factor to me was, I was the only one doubting me; I was my biggest obstacle and I still am, sometimes. In fact this surprise was also a heart-warming revelation because it showed me how much people believed in me, how everyone in my community has offered encouragement and mentorship; it showed me I wasn’t in this alone.

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What made you want to create Beyond Etiquette?
It was a combination of things that inspired me to create Beyond Etiquette; first, it was the love and support I received from my family and friends that encouraged me to pursue my passions. Moreover, it was the realization that I had access to information that should be shared with everyone, especially in times of such a polarized political and social climate. Our world is becoming more divided than before; instead of blaming or stereotyping the other side, what we truly need is to reach across the table and communicate with empathy. By using the essence of etiquette, which is to “put others’ needs before your own” while communicating with an open mind allows for the opportunity to create a connection that leads to understanding even with opposing parties because we’ll realize, as humans, we all share the same universal needs of to be loved and understood. This is where Beyond Etiquette comes in, we want to offer both of that to our clients, not just how to have good etiquette to politely reach across the table and start a conversation, but also how to work towards a place of understanding and empathy together with effective communication skills.

How do you think etiquette has evolved?
Etiquette has evolved with the times, it’s become much more gender-neutral. However, the essence of etiquette has always remained the same; it’s always been about respect and consideration for others. For example, it used to be men holding the door for women; however, now anyone can hold the door as a kind and thoughtful gesture. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, I see etiquette more necessary than before because I believe by applying the simple rules of being respectful and considerate of others, we can minimize the number of incidents due to inappropriate behavior.

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What has creating Beyond Etiquette taught you about yourself and your business?
Creating Beyond Etiquette has been a humbling experience. It showed me that starting a new business can be challenging, no one shows or tells you about all the hustle and hard work behind the scenes before you and your company are even deemed “successful”. However, it’s been rewarding because I learned that I need to become more accepting and loving towards myself and my failures. Especially since I was raised in an environment where failure was not an acceptable option. Even though I’m still working on overcoming my fear of failure, I’ve learned that it’s helpful to take a step back and see it from a different perspective. I’ve learned that growing a business takes time and during that time it teaches you patience, it teaches you grit or shows how gritty you can be, it teaches you the power of vulnerability, it teaches you the importances of setting boundaries, and so much more. It has also showed me how blessed I am to have the opportunity to pursue this passion of mine, especially with the support I have from my family and friends, especially my mom. Not everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams or start their company whereas I’ve been given the opportunity to do so at 27 and I’ll be eternally grateful for this journey no matter how it turns out.

What do you hope people take away from your business/courses?

I hope that people see how Beyond Etiquette’s mission is about making the world a better place together, instead of being better than one another. Our company isn’t about me being “better” than anyone else either, I’m a guide who will help you get to where you want to be while we learn and grow together in this process. It’s not about focusing or fixing what’s “wrong”, but learn to love and accept your own imperfections and still see ways to better yourself. It’s about how we can contribute in creating better environments for ourselves and people we interact with through etiquette and communication. Ultimately, we are a company that offers education, elevation, sophistication, and introspection. Our goal is to empower and educate you so that you may approach the world with leadership, integrity, and empathy.

You can follow Beyond Etiquette for etiquette tips or enroll in a course here

Check in to see what’s Bonnie is up to here

Danielle ErvesComment