Learning to Mind Their Manners

The Sun, January 14, 2007

by Arin Gencer

The students stood up and looked around awkwardly.
With some coaxing, they formed pairs and faced each other, then put out their hands.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” said Katie Frager, 11, after shaking the hand of Kerry Wilkes, 13.
A little ways off, Monique Walker, 12, shook another student’s hand and introduced herself. Then she looked away.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said. “I don’t know her.”

They’d get to that, promised Carol Haislip, who was teaching the communication skills class at Mount Airy Middle School.

The three girls were among 11 students signed up for the four-week after-school course on topics ranging from greeting and introductions to telephone skills and thank you notes.

“It’s so important for our youth to have these skills, because it lays the foundation for everything else the rest of their life,” said Kelly Frager, the parent who arranged the class.

“As a society, we’re so focused now on this technology and e-mail and IMing,” Frager added. While all of that is valuable, she said, “there are times when there’s nothing like a written note” or a “simple, five-minute phone call.”

Frager said she got the idea after talking to a friend whose child was taking cotillion classes. Frager contacted the Hunt Valley-based International School of Protocol, which Haislip co-directs, about having a class.

And so, for $80, students at Mount Airy Middle School had the option of participating in four one-hour sessions meant to equip them with the skills that would, ideally, serve them for life. On Wednesday afternoon, the students gathered in a classroom at two round wooden tables for their first lesson.

Some readily admitted they were a bit reluctant to attend. But by the end of the hour, they were armed with new pieces of information that could at least make stepping into a room full of strangers a bit easier.

Look people in the eye. Smile. Speak with a loud, clear voice. And, unless you’re standing before someone with an arm injury, always shake with your right hand.

Those basic steps could go a long way, Haislip told them, drawing on her nearly 20 years of experience in the corporate world, where she worked in human resources and sales, among other areas.

“The people who were really successful were the people who could walk into a room, shake someone’s hand, look someone in the eye,” said Haislip, explaining to the students the conclusions she had drawn from those years. “Those were the people that were really successful.”

At one point, Haislip stepping over to Cody Hoffman, 11, and took his fingers in hers and shook them tentatively.

“Would you think that was a good handshake?” she asked the group. No, they said.


It doesn’t seem like you’re very confident,” seventh-grader Tommy Sears, 12, said.
Haislip showed them how to make sure the web—the area between their thumb and forefinger—of their hand touched the other person’s.

“You know that you can fool someone into thinking you’re confident?” she said. Shake firmly. “You’re going to need to squeeze their hands pretty hard.”

If they started now, Haislip added, it would become easier.

“This class in particular is a very important one for the middle-school-age kids, because self-confidence is really hard,” Haislip said in an interview. “This is the point in their life where they need to be thinking about the kind of impression that they are making with other people.”

Working with the middle-school group also gave Haislip a chance to share other cultures’ practices.

“If you lived in Ethiopia, it would actually be disrespectful to look a grown-up in the eye,” Haislip said.

What about Japan? she went on to ask.

“You would bow,” said Emily Joseph, a 13-year-old eighth-grader. Katie Frager later stepped up to demonstrate, with Haislip the air kisses the French might give in greeting.

Many students said they found the session interesting.

“I was excited,” said Samantha Bingaman,11, who said she wanted to take the class to learn more about manners.

While she, Emily and others said they were familiar with some of the day’s lessons, there was one subject they especially looked forward to: public speaking.

Katie agreed. The sixth-grader said she tends to twirl her hair and tuck it behind her ears when she talks.

“I want to know how to stop doing that,” she said.

But they had already overcome that day’s challenge, as they stood once more to practice greetings.

This time, they moved into pairs with ease, stretching their right arms out to each other.

“Hi, I’m Monique Walker,” the seventh-grader said.

“Hi, I’m Taylor Long,” the 11-year-old replied.

As they spoke, they looked each other in the face. They smiled and moved to the next introduction.