Modern Etiquette: Consider how you treat the 'Unknown Visitor'

Monday, 19 December 2011 - 7:41pm IST | Place: Seattle | Agency: Reuters
Recently, I accompanied a friend as her guest to an event at a private home. It's fair to say that the others there treated me dismissively at best.

Mary Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette" and "Class Acts." She is also the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website http://themitchellorganization.com The opinions expressed are her own.

Recently, I accompanied a friend as her guest to an event at a private home. It's fair to say that the others there treated me dismissively at best.

My garb was appropriate and understated. So was my demeanor. I was the out-of-town visitor, unknown, and quite possibly not worth anyone's time. Perhaps I was being overly sensitive. Frankly, I did not enjoy the frosty experience.

Yet I could not help reflect on the episode, especially since the holiday season is filled with guests and visitors - some known and some not at all.

My Hungarian grandmother used to say, "No matter who a person is, or what his station might be, he is a guest in my home and will be treated graciously, respectfully, and warmly." That principle was non-negotiable, yet obviously would not apply to intruders.

When I recounted my story to Gary Trantham, a physician and Jungian scholar, he pointed out that the myth of the Unknown Visitor pervades practically every culture and that my grandmother's instruction echoed the Ukrainian adage, "Guest in the house - God in the house," which is spoken even today.

Dr. Trantham reminded me that, while mostly everybody knows the story of Mary and Joseph being turned away at the inn and giving birth to the baby Jesus in a manger, the theme of the Unknown Visitor can be traced much further back.

Ancient Greeks told of gods Zeus and Hermes disguising themselves to test human beings. Similar tales exist in Chinese folklore, Indian tradition, Nordic mythology, Russian folk tales and North African/Muslim cultures.

"There are common denominators of the Unknown Visitor," Trantham said.

The Unknown Visitor first appears very humble and lowly, yet turns out to be a god or an angel. The rejection they suffer has adverse consequences for those who turn them away. Sincere hospitality results in blessings and abundance for those who embrace them.

Indeed, some cultures are on the alert and even look for the Unknown Visitor as an opportunity for future blessings. In the world of Islam, the Unknown Visitor is called Khidr. I can bear personal witness to this:

As a young woman attached to an international banking institution, I arrived in Cairo for a lengthy assignment there. The hotel lost my reservation, and I sat stunned and scared in the lobby, bereft of status and position.

A nearby gentleman who was waiting for his appointment saw my distress, asked about it, and immediately offered to take me and my then husband to his home for the night.

We accepted. The man returned us to our hotel the next morning, refreshed and fed, and able to cope with our housing crisis. I promised myself there and then to pay the kindness forward.

Such musing brings me to the present. It's easy to sit here and pontificate about how the holidays should be welcoming times. Most of us welcome known visitors to our homes, people we like and enjoy.

Yet what about the unknown guests, the ones we do not know and do not necessarily like? That list can include new family members, colleagues, neighbors, to name a few.

As I write, I am humbled to admit that in my Unknown Visitor role described at this column's start, I felt somewhat snubbed and self-righteous.

I needed to look in the mirror and see that I just as easily could be the one giving the frosty hospitality. I needed an attitude adjustment.

Thus, I appreciate Dr. Trantham's wisdom about the Unknown Visitor: "It's a way of being in this world...seeing beneath the surface."

In Tennessee Williams' landmark play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," Blanche DuBois famously said: "Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Wouldn't it make for a better world if strangers, whoever they may be, could come to depend on the kindness of their hosts?


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