From elegant gowns to prestigious guest lists to fancy dinners, Candilyn Newell has seemingly lived her life straight out of a professional etiquette book.
Originally, Newell thought etiquette was all about the rules as she and her growing family transitioned to life in a foreign country three decades ago.
Her husband, Gregory J. Newell, served under President Ronald Reagan as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs from 1982-85. His demanding work took their family abroad as he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden from 1985-89.
Acting as the president’s personal representative, his responsibilities included negotiating on behalf of the government and representing American views, values and interests in virtually every aspect of politics.
The Newells arrived in Sweden just three weeks before their fifth child was born.
According to the former ambassador, that significant event was “a grand way to be publicly introduced to Sweden.”
“As we were a very young ambassadorial couple, where all others were in their 50s, 60s and 70s, we were welcomed as a ‘normal’ young American family, with faith and lots of kids,” Gregory Newell said.
He alluded to the difficulty of balancing family life with his demanding responsibilities, but said he and his wife sought to find balance through “family home evening, daily family scriptures, morning and evening family prayers, Sunday church worship and temple service worship.”
“Being young was hard, but it was also a wonderful blessing because we had the energy to attend to family and also fulfill those heavy, diplomatic responsibilities,” Candilyn Newell said.
In order to maintain their credibility in Sweden, the Newells had to present themselves professionally. Trained by Shirley Temple Black, Candilyn Newell was expected to learn a variety of etiquette rules, including table manners, appropriate dress, networking and good conversation skills.
She admitted that at first, she thought etiquette was “all about the rules.” However, she noted an experience in Sweden that was a significant turning point in her understanding of etiquette.
Some of the Newells’ responsibilities included participating in events with a variety of high-profile people. One such event was held in the Newells’ home.
“In preparation for a subsequent presidential invitation for the Royal Couple to America and to the White House, Candilyn and I hosted a formal, black tie dinner at the residence,” Gregory said. “Some 40 guests with significant ties to American-Swedish relationships were invited.”
The prestigious guest list included President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, then-Elder Thomas S. Monson, Diana Ross, John W. Nordstrom and the King and Queen of Sweden.
Candilyn Newell explained that the first bottle of wine was served to the highest-ranking woman in the room, the Queen of Sweden.
The server entered the room and began to pour the Queen’s drink.
And out came a mouse.
Candilyn Newell said that every time she tells this story to a class, listeners immediately gasp —that’s a natural reaction. But she said the Queen did otherwise.
“The Queen knew the importance of this dinner. She knew what it meant to her country, her husband, her people. Such that when it happened, she suppressed any physical reaction and just turned her head,” Candilyn Newell said.
After witnessing this, Candilyn Newell immediately began to question how the Queen was able to restrain herself from reacting. “There’s no rule for that,” she thought.
“It could have played out so many different ways,” she said, acknowledging the possible news headlines of “Americans try to attack Queen” if she had screamed or even just reacted.
But she didn’t react.
Candilyn Newell said this experience, along with others throughout their time in Sweden, helped her realize that true etiquette is not all about rules. She said people were kind and generous and allowed her to learn, even when she messed up her etiquette.
“At the end of our time there, I started to think about it. All of those rules. If I’m thinking about those, how can I care about the people around me?” Candilyn Newell said. “If I’m so worried about which fork to use, I’m not talking to the person next to me. If I’m so focused on whether or not I’m supposed to be the one shaking a hand or not, I’m not making people feel comfortable.”
She does not suggest that etiquette rules should be completely avoided, but rather that the focus should be shifted to the principles behind the rules.
“Don’t dismiss the rules. Rules facilitate smoothness. When you understand the reasons behind the rules, they become more helpful to you,” she said.
After their time in Sweden, the Newells returned to Washington, D.C., for a year before deciding to move to Utah.
Candilyn Newell said people often ask her husband why he chose to leave government and he simply states, “family.”
“We have 14 grandchildren with another on the way, so there are no regrets,” she said.
Since being back in Utah, Candilyn Newell, a BYU alumna, has had the opportunity to teach others what she’s learned from her experiences, as she is currently in her 15th semester of teaching professional etiquette at BYU.
The course includes instruction on not only table manners, but also interviewing skills, networking skills, appropriate written correspondence, verbal conversation skills and dating etiquette.
Candilyn Newell hopes the class helps students become more informed about the rules so they can understand them, but then choose to let go of the rules and live the principles, because “that’s where the richness in their professional and personal lives will be.”
Throughout the class, she teaches etiquette as a way to minister and serve others.
“I’m passionate about etiquette because I think it allows us to become more like the Savior,” she said. “It’s just caring for one another. That’s the whole idea about it.”
Candilyn Newell encourages students to focus on “the one” and look for ways to help others, including those who may be sitting alone at the Cougareat or at church on Sunday.
“Do you have the courage to get over your own fear and go talk to them? There’s no rule for that — not in any etiquette book I have seen,” Candilyn Newell said. “But it matters. It’s getting outside of yourself. That’s what the Savior would do. He looked for ‘the one’ constantly.”
She said true etiquette is trying to live the way the Savior lived and interact how He interacted with others.
Johnathon Kreider, a senior studying genetics and biotechnology, has taken her etiquette class twice.
“I serve as the first counselor in the bishopric in my ward, and the way that I treat others and lead others has changed completely,” he said. “You see, I believe that at its core, etiquette teaches you to treat people like the Savior would treat them, I really think that.”
Kreider explained that at first he was opposed to taking the class, expecting it to be “how to become a star of Downton Abbey.” However, after attending the first class and witnessing how professor Newell taught the content, he was hooked.
“The best part is that Dr. Newell understands that everyone has a somewhat twisted view of etiquette. You understand that what you think is good etiquette is really a way to manufacture exclusivity, but you quickly come to understand that etiquette is all about being inclusive,” Kreider said. “It’s fundamentally changed the way that I’ve approached both personal and business relationships.”
Kreider acknowledged that the typical focus is on the rules rather than the principles behind the rules, such as with writing a thank you note.
“Everyone either uses it because they’ve been told they should — like a 5-year-old being reminded to say ‘thank you’ — or because they want to promote themselves, and that’s not the point,” he said. “The point is simply to be grateful. If you have that in mind as you write, believe me, it’ll do the job it is meant to do.”