Minding Their Manners

In etiquette class, kids find success in a firm handshake and a well-placed fish fork.

Style Magazine

By Joe Sugarman

Cathy Hanson, co-director of the International School of Protocol, sets a table of Blue Danube china, Rogers silverware and four sparkling glasses at the front of a Clarksville Elementary School classroom. "You've been invited to a six-course meal," she tells me and the five girls and two boys assembled for her table manners class. "Where do you begin?"

The children, most of them seventh-graders, gaze at the elaborate place setting and shrug. Hanson offers a hint: "You'll be starting with a seafood cocktail." Katerina, a pretty girl in a light blue T-shirt, raises her hand. "Use the little fork on the right," she says. "That's right!" Hanson says. "Now what do you think comes next?" We go through the entire setting, from soup spoon to fish knife to salad fork to dinner knife to dessert spoon, placed properly-facing left-above the plate.

With each piece of flatware the kids seem to be catching on. They begin to ask hypothetical questions, as if picturing themselves guests at some fancy dinner party: What if you're given a seafood cocktail, but no cocktail fork? Do you pass the salt and pepper shakers at the same time? What's the point of grape shears? Hanson answers each question with patience and enthusiasm, which, perhaps surprisingly, the kids seem to share.

She tells the story of a Ph.D. in statistics-a grown man!--who failed several job interviews due to shoddy table etiquette. "Good manners are a life skill," she tells the children. "They can give you an edge over someone who is just as smart. They are a key to success."

Seven years in existence, the International School of Protocol is on a mission to help people succeed. Hanson, her co-director Carol Campbell Haislip and senior associate Marsha Luster work up to six days and evenings a week spreading the gospel of firm handshakes and polite conversation. Their clients include not only children, but also newly arrived immigrants, corporate executives, sales clerks, restaurant staff and possibly even a "local professional sports team." (Mum's the word until the contract is signed.) Once a week they teach etiquette to disadvantaged children at Paul's Place, a community outreach center in Pigtown.

At first you can't help but feel self-conscious around Haislip and Hanson. These are "manners professionals" after all. You wonder if your handshake is firm enough; if you're slouching too much; if that spinach salad you had for lunch has left a few stragglers in your teeth. But both are extremely easygoing forysomethings who take neither the art of etiquette nor themselves too seriously.

Haislip, a lifelong Ruxton resident, spent nearly twenty years with Allfirst Bank, working in training, sales and human resources. In her spare time she taught ballroom dance and social skills to children. "After all those years working for the corporate world I felt (the manners training) was more important. I thought I'd take a gamble, see if I could find other people who believed the same things I did."

She found Towsonite Cathy Hanson, who was working as an adjunct professor in communications at Towson University. Hanson had spent the 1980s living in Alaska, volunteering with the domestic Peace Corps, ice and mountain climbing, and teaching at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. It was toward the end of her tenure that she started noticing a decline in her students' social skills. "They were just as smart, but they were lacking the skills of how to present themselves to their instructors, how to present themselves in a variety of social situations. Our world has become so casual, but these things are still so important in life."

Back at Clarksville Elementary (the Baldwin-based School of Protocol lacks a dedicated teaching facility, but holds classes at various locations throughout the Baltimore area), I find myself the guest of honor at a make-believe dinner party. The kids and I sit at eight tiny desks pushed together to form a table. Joseph, a tall 10th grader and our "host," raises his Dixie cup. "To Mr. Sugarman," he says, somewhat nervously, "our valiant guest of honor."

Valiant? I guess it did take some guts to show up for the class.

When I ask Hanson and Haislip why most parents enroll their children, they say it's because there are so few chances to learn manners at home. "Kids don't have a lot of the opportunities that we might have had growing up, to sit down and have a family meal and be able to watch and learn from their parents," says Haislip. "We all live such busy lives. But children thrive on a set of rules. We hear all the time that we've created a 'manners monster,' that the child has come home and is correcting everybody."

It happened to Matt Wall, a 9-year-old who took a social etiquette class with Marsha Luster last fall. His mother, Rose, says she registered her son in hopes that he'd gain the confidence to behave properly in social situations. "After the first day, he came home and said he wanted to shake my hand," she says. "So I did. Then he informed me that I did it wrong, that I should have stood up to shake his hand."

Haislip and Hanson have found that, with etiquette training, children often respond better to a third party than to their own parents. Kids tend to interpret any parental requests to take off a hat indoors or to sit up straight as nagging. "The idea,"says Haislip, "is to have them see their peers learn these skills, so it's no longer, 'I have to shake hands with a grown-up because my mom or dad wants me to;' it's, 'I have to shake hands because I want to be successful and everyone else knows how to do it."'

Dinner party over, Hanson ends her table manners class the way she ends them all: She lines the kids up and shakes each child's hand individually. "Smile," she tells them, "and say something nice."

A week later, I drop by Carol Haislip's social etiquette class in a Sunday school room at Towson United Methodist Church. She begins by asking the ten 7- to 9- year-olds if they did their homework assignment: to properly introduce themselves to someone else. Caitlyn, a soft-spoken girl with shoulder-length hair, says she shook hands with her doctor. Haislip asks her to demonstrate. With her etiquette teacher playing the doctor, Caitlyn walks to the front of the room. "Nice to meet you, Dr.____. My name is Caitlyn."

"Excellent," says Haislip. "Can the rest of the class tell me what she did right?" They dissect her technique: she stood up, made good eye contact, smiled and spoke loudly and clearly. She also performed her handshake using the proper "web-to-web" method. Overall, an excellent exchange.

"Did anyone else shake hands with somebody this week?" Haislip asks. A cute 9-year- old named Cameron who just can't seem to sit still, speaks up: "My cat," he says. Haislip can't help but laugh. "Well, did you look him in the eye?"

Later, over a lunch of potato chips and messy chicken salad subs (what was I thinking?), I ask Hanson and Haislip whatever happened to our society that now it's necessary to teach manners in classrooms. Hanson lays down her sub, and wipes her mouth with a napkin before answering. "Previously, etiquette was everywhere, so it wasn't something you needed to necessarily learn. It was just always applied," she says. "A man, for example, would see a woman on the street and automatically tip his hat; that's just something we don't do anymore. I think good manners skipped a generation, in that people really don't know the protocol for a lot of behaviors. And so we're teaching what our parents knew, when good behavior was just a part of life."

Hanson and Haislip blame the self-centered "Me" generation of the 1980s as well as the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s. They stress that feminism has changed many things for the better, but somehow manners were trampled in the process.

"With the feminist movement, it was everybody feeling like they were on an equal basis," says Haislip. "But the true essence of manners is putting the other person before yourself, the other person's needs before your own."

Part of what the International School of Protocol teaches is simply for kids to be nice to one another, to think about how their actions can make other kids feel. In this world of school shootings, they think a little good manners can go a long way.

"I think the incident at Columbine really was an eye-opener for people," says Haislip. She says that studies have shown that the violence that has occurred in schools typically stems from a single act of rudeness that escalates. "Kids don't know that if you accidentally knock the books out of someone's hand, you should say 'I'm sorry' and help them pick them up and move on. They're not learning those types of skills."

"The other thing," Hanson adds, "is to give the children an alternative to other attention-seeking activities like drugs or alcohol. If you have the social skills to have a conversation, then you're going to be popular. You won't need to do something that is anti-social to get attention."

By Hanson's final table manners class, I'm amazed at how much the kids have retained. Hanson simply tells them what's on a hypothetical menu--"avocado soup, cucumber salad, roast suckling pig, green beans and mushrooms, and for dessert, a very juicy blueberry cobbler"--and the kids respond by gathering the proper tableware and setting their own places.

When the host unravels his napkin and places it on his lap (fold side toward his belly button), the rest of the kids follow, and begin making conversation about school recess and social studies class. I nudge Bobby Harris, a bespectacled 12-year-old, and ask him if he's enjoyed the class.

"Definitely," he says. "Now I know more about table manners than my parents do. I show them how to do stuff at dinner." Another manners monster has been created. Toward the end of class Hanson tells of a dinner meeting between two diplomats, one Asian, one American. Mistaking his finger bowl for soup, the Asian man lifted it to his lips and started sipping. Instead of correcting his dinner companion, the American picked up his finger bowl and began drinking as well. "That, to me," she tells the children, "is what manners are all about. Putting others before yourself. Making others feel comfortable, no matter the circumstance."

There's time for one last table-setting test. Hanson pauses and thinks of a possible menu. "Tonight for dinner, you'll be having a dinner salad…and quiche."

The kids run to gather the proper utensils, but almost in unison, all stop and look back at their manners teacher confused. "Ms. Hanson, "they say, "what's quiche?"