IRVINE : She Gives It Her All for Protocol

Foreign visitors to Irvine ask the darndest things.

Stella Cardoza knows. As the city employee in charge of protocol, Cardoza’s job is to make visitors feel at ease. But sometimes she is asked things that make her feel downright on edge.

Take the delegation from West Germany. While they were being entertained in an upstairs conference room with a commanding view of Irvine on three sides, they gazed out over miles of expensive Orange County real estate. They then asked Cardoza why all the homes looked alike.

Cardoza, a budding diplomat, smiled as she recalled her answer. She cited economic reasons.


“In order to develop, we have to have developed on a large scale,” she said. “European cities developed over centuries. We developed in 20 years.”

That’s not all visitors want to know. They want to know why they don’t see people in the streets. They want to know how Irvine keeps the streets clean. They ask about sexism and human rights. They want to know where the blacks and Latinos are.

“The Germans are really frank,” she said. “They ask hard questions right away.”

Cardoza’s job is unique to cities in Orange County. The county has a protocol office which works closely with cities to handle business meetings, tours and events for foreign dignitaries. But Irvine is the only city which appears to devote so much effort to the ever-sticky art of not offending guests.

“Protocol? All it means is using good sense,” Cardoza said. “If you’re trying to do serious business, the effort is there not to offend.”

The work evolved into a job, Cardoza said, after she continually found herself setting up meetings with an increasing stream of visitors to the city. Cardoza was working in the Department of Planning and Community Development, arranging meetings with those who wanted to speak with the planners of the planned city.

Cardoza, 51, who grew up in East Los Angeles, has arranged meetings with foreign emissaries and representatives of the Irvine Co. to discuss the intricacies of construction schedules. She has also set up round-table discussions with city officials and visiting political science professors, as well as sessions for visiting students.

It’s good for the city, she says, because it gives Irvine visibility. And visitors help to educate their hosts through shared experiences.

“My position is not here to fill someone’s itinerary on the way to Disneyland,” she said. “It’s a public service.”

Cardoza’s job operates under the auspices of the city’s International Affairs Program, a project pioneered by Mayor Larry Agran and criticized by his opponent in the upcoming mayoral election, Sally Anne Sheridan. Sheridan has said that the city should stop meddling in global affairs and worry about programs closer to home.

Cardoza said protocol affairs take up 15% of her time, with the rest devoted to Irvine’s sister-city programs. But she can easily tick off a few of the lessons she has learned.

* Always take the business card of a Japanese visitor with two hands and treat it with reverence. In Japan, the business card is an extension of one’s self.

* Never give the standard Irvine present, a clock, to a visitor from China. The Chinese consider it an omen of death.

* Never act in an informal manner with a visitor from Japan, unless he or she does so first.

* Don’t be unsettled if Japanese visitors close their eyes during a presentation. They are concentrating, not sleeping.

She has had a few near-disasters, like the time a delegation of Koreans appeared on the city’s doorstep unannounced. Cardoza said they were lucky she was able to throw together a meeting with a few dignitaries, including the mayor and an Irvine Co. executive.

Usually, however, she knows about visits well in advance and asks visitors to submit their questions before they arrive, so she can find someone to answer them.