Charm School 2005

The Daily Record; July 23, 2005

by Mary E. Medland

Quick now: Why are the tips of dinner knives curved?

Well, dear reader, during the reign of Louis XIII, pointed dinner knives not only tore the meat into manageable sizes, they also were used to pick the remaining shreds of food that were stuck between a diner’s teeth when the meal was finished.

Fortunately, Cardinal Richelieu—Louis’ chief minister—was so appalled by this behavior he exerted his considerable influence to have the knives’ tips rounded.

OK, try this one: Why do we shake hands?

During the Middle Ages virtually everyone carried a knife. Now, picture yourself as a louse-ridden peasant walking through the king’s woods, when you come upon a stranger. How to tell if he is friend or foe?

Somehow or other the custom of offering one’s “knife” hand—typically the dominant, or right, hand—made it clear that neither party intended to harm the other. Of course, for good measure, when the two hands were clasped, they also were shaken up and down. If by some sneaky chance there was a dagger up a sleeve, it was likely to be dropped on the forest floor.

Evolution of the toast?

Yep, back again in the Middle Ages. Wine then tended to be acidic and vinegary, but then some bright young thing came up with the idea of burning a piece of bread and putting it in the drink to act as a sort of charcoal filter that improved the taste,

However, those were still dangerous days. How could one be sure a rival, who was suddenly so kind as to offer up a tankard of wine, had not poisoned the drink? He who was brought the wine would make certain it was safe to drink by clinking tankards and making sure some of his wine sloshed over into the other cup.

If the kind gentleman who brought the wine in the first place was now reluctant to drink from his own vessel, well, there was a good possibility he was trying to poison his foe.

For the most part, we don’t poison one another these days, but the custom of toasting continues.

In these ways, etiquette can be viewed as a social history lesson. More practically, however, applying good manners—both in informal settings and in the business place—is a way to show respect for others.

“It’s making other people feel appreciated and making them feel comfortable,” said Cathleen Hanson, who is co-founder of an etiquette school in Baltimore. And as savvy men and women know: Honey is a much more potent force than vinegar in getting what you want.

Reinstating respect

It’s a beastly hot Friday, and at the International School of Protocol in Hunt Valley, 13 women are gathered for a two-day course entitled “Teaching Etiquette to Children and Teens.”

The brainchild of Hanson and Carol Campbell Haislip, the school—whose motto is “Bringing Back Civility, One Person at a Time”—has taken etiquette classes for children and adults to inner-city, after-school programs, homes for at-risk children, private school summer camps, country clubs, colleges and universities, children whose parents have recently emigrated to this country and aren’t certain about the rules, and Fortune 500 companies.

“About 10 years ago we started the school. I think civility was in such a state of disrepair that we wanted to do something to reinstate civility and good graces … those are the things that people remember, and they are the things that make the difference down every avenue you travel,” said Hanson. “These are skills that they really need to advance and to advance in jobs.”

For this course, there were only three of us from metropolitan Baltimore; the other etiquette devotees came form Boston, Northern Virginia, Long Island, Brooklyn, New Orleans, South Carolina, Florida and other spots. Twelve of the 13 pupils were there with the expectation of teaching civility—social etiquette, communication skills and table manners—to children. Me, I just have a demented fixation with etiquette and manners—especially table manners.

Fellow students included two women who own a modeling agency, a Harvard employee who is applying to medical school, a nurse, a doctor of pharmacology, an accountant, a homemaker and a teacher.

Though we were all women in the class, etiquette cannot be dismissed as a form of female fussiness. Increasingly, a code of civil conduct in the workplace is very much in demand. More and more corporations are making it known that good behavior—whether in the executive’s office or the mailroom—is expected.

Furthermore, good manners outside the office have become equally important to employers.

“For 20 years, I worked for a company, and when we thought we had the right candidate for a position, we took him or her out to lunch,” said Haislip. “If his manners were unacceptable, he was not offered the position.”

Indeed, that point of view seems to be increasing. Hanson reports one very bright, very skilled individual who interviewed for a number of jobs and was absolutely certain he was going to get an offer. After all, five or six companies had gone so far as to ask him out to lunch. However, when no one made the offer over coffee, he eventually figured things out and hired Hanson for a one-on-one lunch to teach him the finer points of properly handling fork and knife.

“He didn’t understand why manners mattered,” said Hanson. “I told him that he had the necessary technical and intellectual skills, but that table manners were yet one other set of important skills.”

Gracious grips

At this particular class, Hanson and Haislip began by teaching about the handshake and introductions, One could think that the simple task of learning to shake hands could take, oh, five minutes.

Dead wrong.

Handshake maven Hanson always spends at least one hour on this endeavor. The four key elements are: eye contact; a firm, but not bone-crushing grip; the webs of each hand must meet; and everyone must stand up—and standing means everyone, regardless of gender.

Of course, there are regional variations with introductions, and when in Rome … well, you know.

In the South, the honorific most typically used is Mr. or Miss, frequently paired with the person’s first name. But don’t assume that’ll go over big in Boston, where it’s more likely to be Mr. or Miss, paired with the surname.

Haislip and Hanson warn to err on the side of formality. Use the honorific and last name, unless you are asked to do differently.

And, Lord knows, Southerners will “yes, ma’am” everyone, including Yankees, till the cows come home.

Before the class winds down, Haislip and Hanson manage to cover the proper way of folding letters and putting them in envelopes, getting on and off the elevator, thank-you notes, public speaking, conversation, opening doors and listening skills. That’s followed by a four-course just for some real-life dining practices, before everyone heads back to their homes.