My Conversation with Sara Jane Ho: The World’s Foremost Expert on Etiquette, Culture, Social Fluency.

My Conversation with Sara Jane Ho: The World’s Foremost Expert on Etiquette, Culture, Social Fluency.

Sara Jane Ho is the founder of China’s first etiquette school Institute Sarita and host of the Daytime Emmy-nominated Netflix series Mind Your Manners. In her new book Mind Your Manners – How to Be Your Best Self in Any Situation, Sara unpacks a lifetime of lessons, pro-tips, and FAQs on social and digital etiquette across the five main micro-cultures in our lives: Friendship & Social Life, Work, Dating & Relationships, Family, and Food & Travel.

Etiquette“, Sara Jane says, “…is the glue that holds society together. Humans are social creatures, after all—we need connection to survive. But with global cultures in flux and the post-pandemic digital age, shadow epidemics of anxiety and loneliness are on the rise. Plus, the old rules of ‘decorum’ don’t match the times.”

Amidst all this withdrawal and change, social growth can feel out of reach. How do we leave the comfort of our homes, step away from our screens, and interact face to face? How do we create genuine bonds with people we’ve just met, and how do we maintain those ties throughout our lives? Even the most resilient social butterflies among us face sticky situations—from accidentally-sent invites to unruly work and family encounters—any advice would help.

In this interview I speak to etiquette & culture expert Sara Jane Ho, Founder of China’s first etiquette school, Institute Sarita, star of Emmy-nominated Netflix series, Mind Your Manners and author of Mind Your Manners – How to Be Your Best Self in Any Situation. We discuss the most important aspects of etiquette, cultural and social-fluency that we need to know to feel connected and included- presenting our best self in any situation.

Q: What is social fluency?

[Sara Jane Ho]: Growing up immersed in multiple languages taught me a profound lesson: achieving fluency in a language is akin to mastering the art of human connection and social interaction. To me, social fluency hinges on two pivotal abilities: first, the capacity to decode the nuances of people and situations accurately and swiftly; and second, the skill to engage with others smoothly, effectively, and confidently.

Reflecting on my academic journey, my favourite course at Georgetown University was anthropology—the exploration of human cultures. My diverse upbringing, living in locales as varied as Papua New Guinea, the UK, Hong Kong, and attending boarding school in the US at 14, laid the groundwork for this interest. Studying anthropology not only helped me integrate my personal experiences but also illuminated the concept that every individual’s life is a tapestry of numerous micro-cultures.

In my book, I delineate these micro-cultures into categories such as friends, social circles, family, other relationships, food, and travel. Yet, it’s evident that within these broad categories lie myriad subcultures. Whether transitioning between work departments or navigating the varied branches of my family, I habitually ponder the prevailing social code. What are the conversational norms? Which slang is in vogue? What is the dress code? These reflections guide my interactions across the diverse tapestry of human connections I encounter.

Yeah, every time I find myself among a new group of people, I instinctively tune into the vibe of the setting. I ponder over the unwritten rules: their way of speaking, the slang peppering their conversation, the tone they adopt, and the overall energy permeating the room. This process is akin to “reading the air,” a concept borrowed from Japanese culture, where you keenly observe and absorb the nuances of your surroundings. And quite seamlessly, almost on a subconscious level, I find myself adopting these customs. This adaptability stems from a fundamental human desire to connect, belong, and fit in seamlessly.

For me, etiquette transcends mere formalities; it’s fundamentally about ensuring others feel at ease in your presence, regardless of their background or demeanour. It’s this universal language of respect and inclusion that truly enriches our interactions, making every social exchange an opportunity to bridge differences and foster a sense of belonging.

Q: How is ‘digital socialising’ impacting our social fluency?

[Sara Jane Ho]: Yeah, so I’ve been pondering a few things. First off, it seems like people feel emboldened by the anonymity of a screen, thinking they can say anything without facing any real consequences. This mindset fuels an alarming rise in cyberbullying. It’s like every time I check the news, there’s another story about shocking rudeness or even outright violence. And what about politicians? Whatever happened to the notion of being statesmanlike?

I believe a key issue is this newfound ability to hide behind our screens, which gives a false sense of impunity, allowing people to express themselves without restraint. Moreover, the surge in social media use seems to be edging out genuine social interactions. The more time we spend glued to our screens, the less we engage in meaningful, real-world exchanges. While technology does have the potential to connect us with like-minded individuals and communities, it paradoxically fosters a sense of disconnection and breeds superficiality in our relationships.

Q: How would you handle making cultural mistakes!?

[Sara Jane Ho]: Well, it really depends on the magnitude of the problem. Sometimes, it’s wiser to just let it slide and not escalate the issue further. However, if it’s something that genuinely needs addressing, I believe in trusting your instincts. Your gut feeling is often shaped by experience, so the more slip-ups you’ve encountered, the better you become at discerning whether to rectify them or not. I’ve certainly had my fair share of mistakes, from missing cues to other blunders.

But, in my view, the initial step is to own up to it—simply acknowledge it. Whether it’s admitting, “That was my fault,” “My bad,” “I was being too sensitive,” or “I didn’t intend it to come off that way,” it’s crucial. Mention it briefly, don’t linger on the issue, and then, just move forward.

Q: What is the relationship of social to cultural fluency?

[Sara Jane Ho]: You know, one approach I consistently embrace is viewing situations as learning opportunities. My natural curiosity and studious demeanour always lead me to ask, “How can I improve? How can this mistake be a stepping stone for growth?” This mindset is integral to who I am, especially living in an environment as culturally rich as Shanghai, where my husband and his friends, fully immersed in the local culture, often use phrases or idioms that are entirely new to me. These could range from ancient Chinese idioms to contemporary slang, or references to the latest movies, books, or celebrities unknown to me.

Whenever I encounter something unfamiliar, my immediate reaction is to consult my bilingual dictionary. This habit was in full display recently, during the Chinese New Year celebrations. When one of his friends used an idiom, I didn’t recognize, I didn’t hesitate to look it up. His friend commended this, noting it as the hallmark of a diligent student. While many might overlook the moment, I seize it as a chance to learn and integrate further into my husband’s circle. For me, it’s about filling in the gaps in my knowledge, not just to understand but to truly belong and connect with those around me.

Q: How do we rapidly build rapport with people?

[Sara Jane Ho]: … It ties back to the learning mindset that I hold dear. I believe it’s crucial, especially in social settings like dinners or gatherings, to be both interesting and interested. Being well-informed, keeping up with current events, and reading the news not only make you more engaging but also enable you to contribute meaningfully to a wide array of topics. However, even if you’re not up-to-date on every subject, showing genuine interest in others is key. My parents instilled in me the belief that everyone you meet can teach you something, regardless of their age, background, or education. I’ve always embraced every conversation as an opportunity to learn, to discover someone else’s story and experiences, which are invariably different from my own.

Often, people admit to feeling anxious or out of place at the dinner table when a topic arises that they’re unfamiliar with. They worry about appearing uninformed and choose silence over exposure. But why take that route? If you approach these situations with the curiosity of a student or the inquisitiveness of a journalist, your perspective shifts. Admitting, “Oh gosh, I don’t know much about that. How did you get into this field? What are some current trends?” transforms your nervousness into a quest for knowledge. It’s not about your ego or your fears anymore; you’re now in a mindset geared towards learning and understanding.

Social anxiety stems from the fear of being judged, criticised, or scrutinised. Often, this can be traced back to experiences in childhood, such as the way we were parented or perhaps being bullied at school. However, adopting a mindset of curiosity—deciding to learn and ask questions—can make those fears dissipate. When you shift your focus from worrying about judgment to engaging in learning and exploration, the anxiety naturally begins to fade away.

Q: What is the difference between social fluency and etiquette?

[Sara Jane Ho]: I often emphasise that etiquette is highly contextual, varying significantly depending on the cultural backdrop and the company you’re in. Etiquette morphs across different settings and scenarios. Take gifting, for example. In Western cultures, receiving a gift typically involves opening it immediately in the presence of the giver, enthusiastically expressing gratitude to demonstrate its value and your appreciation. Conversely, in China or other parts of Asia, opening a gift in front of the giver can come off as greedy. The appropriate response here is to set the gift aside, paying it minimal attention until the giver has departed, and only then opening it in private. These nuances highlight that etiquette isn’t about rigid right or wrongs; it’s about sensitivity to the context, the people you’re with, and the prevailing cultural norms.

I make it a point to consult local friends on etiquette wherever I go. If that’s not an option, I at least do some research. Take dress code, for example. If you’re visiting India, it’s respectful to avoid wearing very short shorts and tank tops. This awareness is part of social fluency, a skill you can take with you and apply universally. So, when you enter a room and meet people for the first time, when you’re ‘reading the air’ and gauging the atmosphere, these considerations come into play. I view etiquette and social fluency as distinct, yet complementary, aspects of navigating social situations effectively.

Q: How do we set boundaries in a socially fluent way?

[Sara Jane Ho]: My favourite anecdote, which I’ve shared in my book—and even dedicated the book to, among others, my late mother, my father, and my friend Flora—revolves around Flora, who was my role model back in high school. I attended Phillips Exeter Academy Boarding School in the States, just a year behind Mark Zuckerberg, who went on to revolutionise the world with Facebook. Flora was in my year, hailing from a small Midwestern town called Willoughby in Ohio. She was the girl everyone adored; every boy had a crush on her, and every girl aspired to be her best friend. Teachers adored her as well. Flora embodied perfection and always greeted everyone with a smile. Even if we hadn’t been formally introduced, if she recognized you from around campus, you were met with eye contact and a warm smile.

One day, I found myself having a late lunch in the dining hall. Clutching my tray, I scanned the room for familiar faces and saw only Flora, engrossed in a book while eating. Since we were in a class together, I naturally gravitated towards her and sat down. She looked up and said, “Oh Sara, just to let you know, I won’t be very good company because I’m studying for my exam next period. But I would still be delighted if you would sit with me.” For a 14-year-old to articulate that was remarkable. Flora clearly communicated her boundaries—her need to study and inability to engage in small talk—yet she did so without making me feel rejected, still extending a warm welcome.

Q: Do these techniques also work when building rapport in a group setting?

[Sara Jane Ho]: Something valuable I absorbed from my time at Phillips Exeter Academy, and later at Harvard Business School, was the practice the instructors referred to as the “core” method. In this approach, teachers actively engage students by calling on them to answer questions or share their viewpoints. This technique has influenced how I teach etiquette; I make it a point to invite each student to express their thoughts. This practice extends beyond the classroom for me, playing a crucial role in how I conduct myself as both a hostess and a guest, particularly during group dinners or similar gatherings. It’s vital to distribute your attention and interest evenly among all present. The goal is to avoid limiting interactions to those you’re already familiar with, prefer to talk to, or deem as the most significant attendees. My approach is to ensure everyone receives an equal measure of engagement and interest.

Q: How do we build digital social fluency?

[Sara Jane Ho]: …digital etiquette is another topic I delve into in my book. In the realm of digital communication, there’s a significant potential for misunderstanding. While face-to-face interactions offer clarity, text-based exchanges like texting or emailing are ripe for misinterpretation, particularly across different generations. For instance, younger generations, such as Gen Z, might react strongly to certain punctuation. A semicolon can unsettle them; the absence of double exclamation points might lead them to think you’re displeased. A period at the end of a sentence can seem overly serious, prompting worries like, “Did I upset my boss?”

These nuances highlight the importance of fostering an understanding of digital communication’s subtleties. It also underscores the value of interacting with a diverse range of people. Sticking to the same circle, where everyone shares identical views, limits this understanding. I personally enjoy conversing with my friends’ children and their parents alike. Engaging with individuals from various age groups and backgrounds broadens your perspective, offering valuable insights into different viewpoints and communication styles.

Q: Are there any universals we need to understand?

[Sara Jane Ho]: It’s quite interesting—just a week ago, my contact at Georgetown University reached out asking me to share something with the students. He inquired about the one universal etiquette rule I wish everyone would practice. My response was simple: the act of making eye contact and smiling should become a reflex. Whether you encounter a classmate, a colleague from a different department, or a stranger in your local neighbourhood coffee shop, one of the most universally positive actions is to meet someone’s gaze and automatically smile.

You’d be amazed by the ripple effect of joy this simple gesture can create. Smiling is like behaviour therapy, not just uplifting for you but also for the person on the receiving end. It conveys a sense of likability, even in a platonic sense, making you memorable and more approachable. People tend to reciprocate the fondness they perceive; if they think you like them, they’re inclined to like you back. And the beauty of it all? It costs absolutely nothing.

Particularly for young people, who often grapple with anxiety, the hesitation to smile or be openly friendly stems from a fear of vulnerability. However, I always say that if someone doesn’t smile back, remember that it’s typically an instinctive reaction to smile in return—it’s a universal language understood even by infants before they can speak. So, if the smile isn’t returned, it’s likely not about you. That person might be dealing with personal issues, feeling insecure, or simply having a bad day. It’s crucial to remember not to take it personally and to maintain your gracious demeanour regardless.

…even consider the handshake. Why do we shake hands? Historically, it was a gesture to demonstrate that we weren’t carrying weapons. Similarly, the tradition of clinking glasses during a toast, allowing a bit of wine to spill into the other’s cup, served as assurance that there was no intention of poisoning. These customs, rooted in trust and safety, underscore the fascinating ways in which social rituals evolve from practical, sometimes survival-oriented origins.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Sara Jane Ho]: Yeah, that’s a compelling question. My core mission, the legacy I aspire to leave behind, centres on empowering women to navigate the world with confidence. This vision took root a decade ago with the launch of the first finishing school for adult women in China. Given China’s unparalleled pace of change, the societal and environmental pressures are immense, not just on a governmental level with congestion and pollution but also on the individual psyche. There’s a significant gap that needs bridging, especially in fostering self-confidence among Chinese women, both within their country and as they represent China internationally.

My efforts have since expanded globally, teaching etiquette to a broader audience. On my Netflix show, I often mention that every girl needs a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Doctor and a Feng Shui master. This belief stems from my upbringing in Hong Kong, where I was familiarized with Chinese medicine practices like cupping, acupuncture, and herbal remedies, as well as the principles of Feng Shui.

Incorporating a holistic approach to being your best self, whether through etiquette, wellness, or spirituality, is at the heart of my work. This philosophy is reflected in my book and the Netflix series. Moreover, I’m about to launch a new venture, an intimate wellness brand inspired by Chinese medicine named Antevorta, after the Roman goddess of the future. Everything I do revolves around this holistic vision of empowerment and wellness.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.