(CNN) — On its face, the now-viral photo of Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking a “selfie” with President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron—at a memorial service for anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, no less—looks wildly inappropriate. And no question, President Obama has taken a lot of media heat for participating. (It didn’t help that the expression on Michelle Obama’s face appeared to be disapproving.)
In the realm of funeral etiquette, those two factors—the memorial service, the glowering wife– taken together, scream “social faux pas.” But there was more to the story behind the image. Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who captured the photo told the “Today” show that he shot the picture during a jovial, celebratory portion of the service. He said people were dancing, singing and laughing as they celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela. Michelle Obama, he said, had been laughing along with the trio seconds before he snapped the image.
Understood. But a few questions remain. Is it proper to take a selfie at a funeral? And was President Obama out of line for doing so — because he is the president, you know.
Under the circumstances Schmidt described, I’d say the selfie was not necessarily in poor taste for the President. But was it poor form? As President of the United States, a man watched and scrutinized at every angle, he is no doubt very careful about how his behavior is perceived. He surely knew that picture would wind up pinging around the Internet and on the evening news and cleverly headlined front pages. Perhaps he wanted to send a message to the people, anyway, to say, “Hey, I’m just like you.”
Now if he wanted to avoid the scrutiny altogether and send a more somber message to the public, he might have held off and joined in on the picture in a more private setting. The moment, however, did not seem to call for such discretion. What’s my bottom line? President Obama’s behavior was appropriate for that particular occasion, for that particular culture at that precise moment.
And what is the protocol for behavior at funerals for the rest of us: selfies and beyond?
Well, if you, too, happen to attend a funeral or memorial service at a stadium where the people are up dancing and singing and laughing in the aisles, then it’s perfectly fine to take a selfie with your seat mates.
The key here is that there is a proper time and place for everything, and that’s where decorum comes in. That I would need to explain this will seem surprising to some, but this is, after all, a time when websites such as Selfies at a Funeral exist. So bear with me: Firing off a selfie during a solemn moment such as the prayer or scripture reading is highly inappropriate and terribly disrespectful.
The same shot during the gathering or meal service afterward is all right. Taking photos within the confines of the church or synagogue or funeral home can be perceived as highly inappropriate. It is important to be aware of this and remain respectful of the family, the culture and the environment you are in.
Funerals and memorials take on a different meaning from culture to culture; some are very somber, others quite celebratory. It is our duty to be sensitive to the entire moment and in some cases it might be difficult to tell what that requires. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: To avoid offending, err on the side of caution and just hold off on that selfie until the funeral has ended.
Editor’s note: Elaine Swann is the founder of the Elaine Swann Leadership Academy, where she provides etiquette seminars for businesses, universities and individuals across the United States.