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An in-depth conversation with Sara Jane Ho, the international etiquette expert who broke up with a boyfriend via text

When it comes to proper table manners and social cues, there are endless questions that one could get lost in — Which fork should I use? How long should I maintain eye contact? When should I end a conversation? What should I do if I forget someone’s name?

For Sara Jane Ho, internationally-renowned etiquette expert and host of the Daytime Emmy-nominated Netflix series Mind Your Manners (2022), answering these questions has become her life’s mission.

Speaking with President Lee Williamson at an FCC dinnertime talk to promote her new book Mind Your Manners: An Insider’s Guide to Social Fluency (2024), Sara Jane first clarified what is and is not etiquette. In her eyes, it most certainly has nothing to do with whichever fork someone uses.

“For me, etiquette is really about making other people around you feel at ease, which is what makes you feel comfortable with them. That goes back to what makes us human beings: a sense of belonging and inclusion,” she explained.

Sara Jane Ho. Photo: FCC

Sara Jane’s awareness of social norms and our human desire to connect with one another started in childhood. Her mother, a typical Hong Kong “Tiger Mom,” often held lively gatherings for family and friends and set the example for what a good host should be — and made sure young Sara Jane refilled everyone’s teacup.

From her father, she received more straightforward advice: “The world is your playground. Go explore.”

“My parents really encouraged me to follow my passions and that as long as you have a passion and you work very hard, you can pretty much achieve whatever you want,” she said.

Sara Jane went on to study English Literature at Georgetown University despite her family’s perception that her English-speaking skills were already good enough. But during the final year of her studies, her mother passed away from cancer and the spirit of regularly hosting guests at their home had gone with her.

“Holidays were particularly painful because it was a stark reminder of what I had lost,” she recalled.

Sara Jane Ho. Photo: FCC

After graduating from Harvard Business School in 2012, she decided to combine her goal of passing on her mother’s legacy with a unique market need in mainland China: social skills for a society that has modernized rapidly since the economic reforms of 1978 without the knowledge to navigate through their new, prosperous world.

Sara Jane moved to Beijing in 2013 and shortly thereafter opened up China’s first-ever finishing school, Institute Sarita. The school focused on teaching not younger, but older women the basics of everyday etiquette.

So how should people carry themselves at work, with family and friends, in romantic relationships, or the various other “microcultures” that Sara Jane dives into throughout her new book? The first step is observation — looking around at what people in these different environments say and do, what they wear, and then slowly adapting oneself to cultivate the “feeling of belonging” she described early on in the talk.

When it comes to making and breaking conversation, Sara Jane also offered some practical tips. Introducing another person to a rather dull speaker serves as a handy way of excusing oneself from the conversation, while asking open-ended questions about a person’s life easily shows someone that you’re interested in them — even if you actually might not be.  

“I like to see each person as a flower bulb and through conversation, you let them blossom,” she said, and added later that, “When you show interest in somebody, they will think that you like them and when they think you like them, they will like you back.”

Smiling and a sense of humor are also two of Sara Jane’s secret weapons to defusing potentially awkward situations.

“I don’t like to take things too seriously. I always feel like you learn the most when you’re having fun,” she said when describing a dirty joke that astonishingly made its way onto the very first episode of her Netflix series.

The joke, while risky, was instantly defused by a smile she flashed seconds later, a subtle acknowledgment to her audience that she wants them to have fun with her as well.

Sara Jane then admitted that she uses her signature smile — often coupled with her self-described “superpower” of raising either one of her eyebrows individually — in any situation where she doesn’t know how to immediately respond. Some of these situations include not understanding what someone has said or, quite conversely, being utterly shocked by what someone has said.

“I call [smiling] the Swiss Army Knife of responses — people can interpret it in any way they want,” she summarized.

Sara Jane also elaborated on the article by The New York Times that highlighted her text message breakup. To the surprise of Lee Williamson and the rest of the attendees, she revealed that the aforementioned ex-boyfriend is an FCC member!

Sara Jane Ho and Lee Williamson. Photo: FCC

“It’s a shame he didn’t sign up [for] tonight!” she exclaimed.

While beginning filming for her Netflix series, Sara Jane found herself at odds with a career that brought her joy and a relationship that did not. She decided that a text would be the quickest and easiest way to move on with her life, but uses this experience to also highlight the fact that despite being an etiquette expert, she’s still not perfect.

Hosting her talk at the FCC didn’t faze her either. Sara Jane actually welcomed the idea of potentially running into her ex and explained that she would still be quite cordial and interested to see what he had been up to since their breakup.

“Honestly, I would treat him as though he were a long-lost cousin because that’s how I feel about him — he’s like some distant relative. I’d actually be very happy to see him, and I’d say, ‘I’m so happy to see you. How are you? I hope you’re well.’”

Learn more about Sara Jane’s life and her social fluency tips by watching the full discussion on the FCC’s YouTube channel:

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