Modern Manners

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Even in the digital age, brushing up on one’s etiquette can create new opportunities.

By Gwyn Herbein

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The terms “etiquette” and “manners” often bring to mind images of handwritten thank you notes, gentlemen opening car doors for women, prim and proper ladies daintily sipping tea with napkins folded perfectly across their laps or eating a gourmet meal with the correct utensil for each course. While these practices seem to reflect a bygone era, well-established etiquette protocols still guide many social interactions, albeit with less formality than in previous generations.

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Handwritten thank you notes remain a sincere way to express gratitude.

Even in today’s hectic, constantly connected and overly scheduled society, good dining manners, professional etiquette and common courtesies should not be neglected. Fortunately, for those who may need a refresher course—or for parents who want to ensure their children get started on the right foot in their social lives—there are myriad books, classes and etiquette experts to guide the way.

The Evolution of Manners

Most experts agree that, for previous generations, manners were passed down from adults to children. This has changed as many families don’t live within such close proximity of each other, according to Cindy Haygood, co-founder and training director at the Etiquette & Leadership Institute in Watkinsville, Ga. “A long time ago, we all lived within moments of our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, so a lot of [lessons in etiquette were] passed down because you ate with them,” Haygood says.

Etiquette & Leadership Institute training courses teach table manners.
Etiquette & Leadership Institute training courses teach table manners.

Jennifer Wall, who teaches a children’s etiquette course at Sea Island, shares a similar background. “I’m the oldest of four and the oldest grandchild on both sides,” says Wall, who recalls learning how to do things like set the table for family holiday meals at a young age.

While setting the table is a skill that has endured the test of time, many other etiquette protocols have subsequently fallen by the wayside. “My great-great-grandmother’s book wrote heavily about chaperones and formal dating, but things now are less protected and women obviously are seen out on their own frequently,” says Lizzie Post, who followed in her ancestor’s footsteps and is an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. Post also notes that while the rules surrounding dining have not changed, the frequency with which people encounter formal dining occasions has dwindled.

While American culture has become more casual overall, there is still a need for education when it comes to etiquette, experts say. From job interviews to dining with the in-laws, good manners never go out of style. “[I believe that] people don’t misbehave because they mean to be rude, it’s that they have not been taught,” Haygood says. Lack of education on this important topic can lead to problems people may not be aware of until they are well into adulthood.

The New Generation

Fortunately for the new generation of ladies and gentlemen, there are plenty of ways to brush up on proper etiquette for almost all social situations. One of the most renowned etiquette schools, the nationally accredited Protocol School of Washington (PSOW), based in South Carolina, has trained many of today’s leading experts. In the late 1980s, founder Dorothea Johnson realized there was a lack of polish and poise among some of the world’s most seasoned business professionals. Her vision has been carried on by others in the industry, including PSOW’s current president and owner, Pamela Eyring, Haygood, Wall and even Johnson’s granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler, who recently co-authored a book with her grandmother titled “Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top.”

The  lessons Johnson and her predecessors at PSOW teach remain invaluable and timeless. “When I was beginning my family [in the mid-1980s], there was no one in Athens (Ga.) who was teaching etiquette,” Haygood explains. She and a friend subsequently attended PSOW to earn their credentials. “When Dorothea retired in 2005, she needed to sell off portions of her business to people she had trained. We acquired the children’s division and renamed it the Etiquette & Leadership Institute.”

Haygood has been interested in the subject since her childhood. “My parents’ families were huge, and there was a particular pattern about all of those [family] events,” she says. “I love to observe behavior. I love to find out why people do the things they do, why people function the way they do in a social and professional manner.”

For Wall, PSOW helped reaffirm the lessons she had been taught during her childhood—and now she passes those lessons along to the next generation. Having worked at Sea Island with the resort’s children’s programs during her college years, Wall majored in education and had planned to teach kindergarten or pre-kindergarten before being hired as Sea Island’s social coordinator. In 2001, the instructors for the etiquette program retired, so Wall attended PSOW to give her the tools she needed to take over. Her class, which meets on Thursdays from March to September, is geared toward children ages 7 to 12. While part of the course meets in the resort’s formal Georgian Room, Wall also has a component that meets in Tavola, Sea Island’s Italian restaurant. In addition to fine dining etiquette, she wants to teach children to be kind to others.

Etiquette Breeds Success

Experts agree that an etiquette education can benefit everyone, from college students down to young children. But learning business etiquette can be especially helpful to those who are starting their professional lives. “I think a lot of young people get a hard wake-up call when they enter the working world,” Post says. “You might not know the proper handshake, but it’s something you need to learn because it will start you off on the right foot.”

Many families have taken advantage of the opportunity to head off these problems early on by enrolling their sons or daughters in Sea Island’s etiquette classes. Working with boarding school or college students is something Wall particularly enjoys. In addition to her group courses at Sea Island, she also teaches private classes that cover everything from roommate etiquette to how to talk to professors. “When people graduate from college, overcoming shyness to get a job is an important skill,” she says. After all, the ability to build relationships can increase a person’s success in the business world.

“People can be smart, but if they don’t have people skills, there will be a point at which they stop moving up,” she adds. “Banking is a good example. People want to do business with people they trust and respect, and [etiquette] is key in that.”

Avoiding Common Mistakes

Even the most seasoned etiquette adherent can slip up from time to time. In many situations, going back to basics can go a long way toward building trust. “People forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot,” Post says. “But ‘please’ creates a request instead of a demand.” She says that recognizing what we are asking of the people around us, and being appropriately grateful for their help sets the right tone in any social environment.

In her classes, Wall notes that some of the common mistakes she observes are children not knowing where to put their napkin (or when to use it) while dining. Similarly, Haygood has noticed a trend of young women playing with their hair at the table. “You used to not see that, and now it is not at all odd to see a little girl take out a rubber band and put her hair in a ponytail at the table,” she says. She also notes that the use of cellphones in restaurants or at concerts, even if they are on silent, is a breach of common courtesy.

Contrary to popular belief, etiquette experts do not fault technology as a whole for a decline in civility. “Emily [Post] loved radios; she was a technophile,” Post says. She urges caution, however, in the extent to which people try to tune out society with headphones, cellphones and tablet computers.

Etiquette for thank you notes and RSVPs also top the list of common breaches. Whether via email or handwritten letter, experts agree that expressing gratitude, whether for a job interview or a dinner party, is paramount. While social environments may not be as structured and family-oriented as they once were, there are still plenty of opportunities for parents to set a good example for their children. “We have to come to an understanding that technology, especially in business, is with us to stay,” Wall says. In her private lessons, she gives parents a list of behaviors they can model at home to ensure that their children pick up on positive etiquette cues, which includes suggestions like not texting at the dinner table.

At the end of the day, when it comes to table manners, common courtesies or business acumen, respect is key. “Etiquette, manners [and] protocol are the three main words [to remember],” Wall says. “It would make the world a nicer place if people had a basic understanding of those things.” Haygood agrees that respect carries more weight than anything else. As she says, “We should care about each other and about respect and civility more than adhering to the rules.”

Dinner Party Dos and Don’ts

Whether formal or casual, a dinner party is the perfect occasion to impress others with top-notch manners. Here is a list of dos and don’ts to ensure a wonderful evening is had by all.

Do: RSVP for a party. “RSVPing as a guest is of the utmost importance,” says etiquette expert Lizzie Post.

Do: Be social and talk to everyone else at the gathering. “Have something to talk about,” says Jennifer Wall, etiquette teacher at Sea Island. “Read the newspaper ahead
of time so you have topics prepared.” (Obviously steer clear of contentious topics like religion or politics.)

Do: Remember to say “goodbye” to the host or hostess. “It’s important to thank them for a lovely evening,” Post says.

Don’t: Arrive without a small gift for the host or hostess, such as wine or pastries.

Don’t: Talk too much or overindulge in alcohol.

Don’t: As a hostess, be too controlling. “It is important to feel the evening as it goes,” Post says. “Don’t regiment it to the minute.”

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