Protocol: Sending the signal
I have recently helped bury a good friend. His name was Chuck Coffey. Maybe some of you remember him when he anchored the news for WHAS in Louisville in the 1970s. Others of you may have worked with him when he was with Indiana University.
Chuck was always the man to go to on issues of protocol. If you have ever wondered what to do in various situations that involve the American flag, Chuck was the ultimate expert. He developed the handbook that is used by official governmental institutions, and he was an active member of various national organizations that examine the applications of protocol. If we ever had a question in the lieutenant governor or governor’s office that involved dates, statistics, grammar, names or quotes, it was Chuck who knew the answers. He was the information guy before the age of computers.
It may seem that he must have been a rigid rules kind of person, but that was far from the truth. Chuck’s interest in protocol was not for self glorification or control but to make life move more smoothly for others. He had respect for what needs to be done in certain community circumstances. He reasoned that circumstances dictate how people have to behave to live peacefully within a code.
We send signals to others when we do things in a certain manner. If we are all operating out of common traditions, there are fewer opportunities for mistrust, embarrassment and misunderstanding. If in ceremonial situations, we do certain things with the symbols of our community, people can respond in a more appropriate manner. For instance, when we lose a prominent member of our community, we lower the flag in a set of prescribed protocols to make public statements about the event. It could be pretty awkward if this practice was not standardized and we community members did not know how to read the message. Think about the use of protocol a bit like the language of signal flags used in navigation.
When we travel to other countries, the guide books we use often tell us of local customs and how we are to interpret them and respond in an appropriate manner. In many of the countries, shoes are left at the door before entering buildings. To disregard this is not just a matter of carrying dirt on your feet. Shoes in the house are considered disrespectful as well. None of us want to do things that send unintended messages to others, especially when we are in someone else’s culture trying to build understandings.
Another case in point is the cultural practice in Japan of nodding when listening to another’s ideas. A business person better realize that the Japanese only mean to transmit that they acknowledge you made a statement, not that they necessarily agree with it. One could think they have made a sale when all they have done is made a statement.
Chuck had respect for tradition, institutions and the people put in charge of making things work smoothly for the group. You won’t read of Chuck Coffey in your history books. He had a small office usually in a corner somewhere from which he offered advice and counsel to the up-front and out-there people. He wrote a lot of Frank’s speeches and rarely spoke in public himself. He really was an example of how we as communities operate, with so many different team members behind the scenes making our businesses, arts and government really work.
Everyday we use the guidelines that exist in our surroundings to get a framework for our activities. We don’t have to wonder, for instance, what to do at an intersection of a street marked with four-way stop signs; a car at your right goes first if you all arrive at the same time. It is a rule and it is in the driver’s manual. Protocol is like that. This may sound a bit like throwing away the freedom we all cherish, but I think it gives the freedom to function without rubbing abrasively against others.
Chuck was always concerned about other people. He was a collector of human stories that showed the funny side of life and never hurt anyone. He often laughed until he cried and made us all enjoy life a bit more.
It is a bit ironic that rules, laws, guidelines and protocol things that sound like they might restrict us and control us really set us free and allow us to enjoy living in a complex and interrelated world.