Vincent Vermeulen - 1st June 2020

In all discretion

The most important quality of every butler is without any doubt discretion. Butlers work mainly for very rich families who often have a lot of power, influence and standing. That is why they run the risk, more than the average person, of falling victim to those whose intentions are bad. Not being discreet as a butler can have terrible consequences. A butler who tells the whole district – or even worse, goes onto the internet to do so – about which makes of cars and how many his employers own or how many diamonds madam has in her drawer could well result in an unexpected and unwanted armed visit to the home.


“Discretion is the best form of calculation.


Butlers see and hear everything, but keep silent. Not that easy in the era of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Not to be led astray, a butler will often delete his own social media accounts. Discretion does have its advantages in the butler’s world: the more discreet a butler is, the more trust the family puts in him and the greater his chances are of being hired when he looks for employment with a new client.

Some time ago I had the privilege of giving butler training on a private yacht. Before starting the training I was required to fill in a confidentiality clause in which was stated that I would tell no-one who the owner was and what exactly was on board. The contract also stated that I was not allowed to take any photographs inside the yacht nor film anything. Absolutely par for the course in the world of the super-rich… Should someone have tried to worm any information out of me, my answer would have simply been: “I’m sorry, I cannot answer that.”

Discretion is one of the most undervalued virtues in society. It is a social skill you have to work at all your life. Discretion entails being able, at any given time or place, to pass judgement on how one should be- have and what one says. Discretion is a form of self-control, so that one does not treat someone with contempt or embarrass them. Moreover, it’s linked to a form of moderation: Discretion also means that one doesn’t intentionally search the spotlight.

Discretion is moreover respecting a person’s privacy by not bringing up subjects that might be sensitive to that person. Which subjects they are often has to be judged at that precise moment. Because of the high le- vel of subjectivity involved, discretion is a skill that is not easy to learn. Someone with strong social qualities who can easily read between the lines has less trouble assessing what he has to be discreet about than someone with less social skills.

Respecting privacy also means not broadcasting personal details of someone’s life for all to hear. It shows little respect and self-control when someone can’t keep certain information to himself. Butlers are no saints and sometimes they do shoot their mouth off. For instance, when they might be waiting for their employers somewhere with the limousine and get into conversation with other limousine chauffeurs. A butler must never say who his passenger is, but at such an unguarded moment it often doesn’t take long before – unintentionally – it comes out.

Discretion has mainly to do with posture and use of language. Someone with a discreet posture has his body language under control and doesn’t show right away how he feels or thinks about something. Discreet use of language refers to adapting the wording so that particular state- ments are open to different interpretations. In other words, discretion is a form of self-control: Being able to control physical impulses and being able to control one’s answers.

A typical example of discretion is ‘the pregnant woman’. It is extremely indiscreet to thoughtlessly say ‘congratulations with the pregnancy’ when one sees a woman who has clearly put on weight. In such a case one holds one’s tongue and waits for the woman in question to announce the happy news instead of embarrassing her by simply coming out with it. It might well be that the woman in question isn’t pregnant at all, and she’s then forced to deny it, causing her to blush.

“The Windsors, the British royal family, are a model of discretion. They abstain from personal opinions, avoid at all times personally offending anyone or that their opinion might cause a particular controversy.”

Other rules apply in the workplace regarding discretion than in private life. The ‘oath of secrecy’ is sometimes included in an employment contract. If that is not the case, then the best choice is to play it safe: If in doubt or if something should not be repeated, the only correct choice is to remain silent. Betraying company secrets without thinking or for- warding confidential documents could in time lead to dismissal. No-one appreciates people gossiping about their fellow colleagues.

Discretion also means respecting the existing hierarchy: someone high up in a company doesn’t want to lose face – and through that be robbed of his authority. While someone lower down the ladder doesn’t want to be told on – and because of that lose his job.

On a side note: Discretion doesn’t apply when illegal, fraudulent practices are occurring. In such a case the butler will also ensure that the truth comes to light, but of course in a discreet manner.

In short, discretion has nothing to do with ‘robot behaviour’. It doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have the right to one’s own – controversial or not – opinion. Just as it doesn’t mean that one should be afraid of expressing one’s opinion. Adopting a discreet attitude is nothing more or less than playing it safe and cleverly predicting when and how to air one’s opi- nion. After all, nobody wishes to live in a society in which everyone simply blurts out what they feel or think at that moment. Discretion ensures that it never gets that far and that human relations are less discordant. That’s what everyone wants, surely?

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