Missed Manners

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A few years ago, Andrew Rose was at a meeting with senior wealth advisers from Legg Mason. One of the meeting's participants arrived a little late, and when she entered the room, Rose stood to greet her. "I was the only one who got up," says Rose, marketing director for the Timonium-based accounting firm Naden/Lean. His move wasn't lost on the executive. "She smiled, and I could tell the small gesture meant something." Perhaps more importantly, he says, his firm "got tangible business from that encounter."

Rose had recently participated in a seminar on professional etiquette at the Center Club, where he learned that standing when a woman enters a room is mandatory, even in our equal opportunity world. He also learned that clinking glasses is a no-no, as well as how to handle "guys with maniacal handshakes." (Pump three times, and then relax your hand "to reverse the dominance," he reports.) "I was raised in a Southern household and thought I knew a lot about etiquette," says Rose. "But I realized I didn't."

He's not alone. From Kanye West disrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at last year's MTV Video Music Awards to Congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health care speech to gatecrashers ignoring protocol and national security at the President's first state dinner, evidence is everywhere that Americans from all walks of life could use a refresher course on their P's and Q's.

Rudeness does not have to be a terminal condition, however. Proof is just up I-83 at the Hunt Valley-based International School of Protocol, one of several organizations in the area dedicated to eradicating bad manners. Carol Haislip, a cofounder of the School of Protocol, which provides classes for children and adults, as well as consulting expertise to service-based industries, believes that most people just need a little guidance to get back on track. "Although ideally, everyone would live by the golden rule of 'Do unto others,' there are certain rules that make things easier," she says.

Moreover, says Haislip, new technology and shifting social mores are constantly forcing experts to rethink standard protocol. These days, rules of politeness have moved from "please" and "thank you" to what you should do if your cell phone vibrates during a business meeting, where to seat divorced parents at your wedding, and how to navigate the minefield of e-mail communication.

"In an e-mail message, you don't have the benefit of body language, so your e-mail could be interpreted very differently from what you intended," she notes. "We tell people to read and reread e-mails before sending them." 

Pier Massimo Forni, a professor of romance languages at The Johns Hopkins University, realized that he could teach his students all they needed know about Dante, "but if they were rude to a little old lady on a bus, I haven't taught them anything."

In 1997, Forni cofounded The Civility Initiative at Hopkins to redress this imbalance. He settled on the term civility because, he says, "the word etiquette has been compromised by bringing to mind shallow and arbitrary formalities." Being polite, he points out, "is not just about how you hold your fork." He describes civility as "small ethics"—letting a driver merge into your lane or keeping your hands off coworkers' food in the communal refrigerator.

Along with teaching at Hopkins (his humanities offerings include a course called "Italian Matters, Italian Manners"), Dr. Forni conducts workshops and gives speeches all over the country, and his latest book, The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude, was recently released in paperback.

One such talk, given at the Howard County Library in 2006, inspired a group of library staffers to create Choose Civility, an organization striving "to position Howard County as a model of civility." The group now counts Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and County Board of Education member Frank Aquino among its members and has attracted 185 fans on Facebook, where its page is regularly updated with quotes about decency ("There is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character."—H. L. Mencken), charity ("Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?"—Martin Luther King Jr.), and compassion ("Just because an animal is large, it doesn't mean he doesn't want kindness; however big Tigger seems to be, remember that he wants as much kindness as Roo."—Winnie the Pooh).

The movement's central tenets are taken from Dr. Forni's first book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, and members spread the gospel through corporate and public seminars, random acts of kindness, and bumper stickers. (Yes, that Prius driver with the green "Choose Civility" sticker affixed to the bumper is a supporter.) "When I see those bumper stickers, I feel good," says Forni. "It's said that in the early part of life, we pursue beauty, and in the latter part, we pursue goodness." Teaching civility, he says, "is my way of embracing goodness."

That good manners make good neighbors is generally well accepted. What's sometimes overlooked, however, is how important civility and etiquette are in the workplace. Forni points out that the 1.8 million annual acts of violence at work most likely originated in an act of rudeness or disrespect. "By keeping acts of civility up, we keep acts of violence down," he says. Haislip agrees that even small slights can have dire consequences. "You have incidents like Columbine. Sometimes a single act of rudeness can escalate out of control," she notes. 

And etiquette is good business, too. Corporations have long been in the practice of inviting experts to conduct training sessions for executives. But lately, people in the competitive job market are seeking an advantage. Correct manners, experts maintain, can give job seekers an edge.

Haislip, who worked in the financial industry for 20 years in high-level sales training and human resources positions, says she "conducted hundreds of interviews and saw that the candidates with the good social skills were getting the jobs." Also, at a certain level, prospects "don't get hired until they've been taken out for lunch or dinner," making table manners as important a qualification as good analytical skills or sales talent. "Some young people might say, 'I don't want to work for a company if they care about how I hold my fork.' But employers will make other judgments about you based on your table manners," Haislip points out.

A few years ago, Baltimore-based etiquette coach Cash Hester accompanied her client to dinner at an upscale restaurant in New York. The client, who was applying for a sales manager job, wanted to impress his potential employers but was terrified of committing a faux pas. He invited Hester along so he could discreetly watch what she did with her napkin and soupspoon.

"He'd never been to a place like this one," Hester says of the expensive Midtown Manhattan Italian restaurant. Hester, a Baltimore resident and arts administrator who trained as an etiquette instructor at the Protocol School of Washington (PSOW), advised her client to "watch very closely and do everything that I did." As it turns out, her client got the job. As a gesture of his gratitude, he bought Hester a fountain pen, a gift she describes as "professional and appropriate."

 Anecdotal evidence suggests more job seekers could benefit from this approach. When Andrew Rose interviews candidates for the Naden/Lean marketing department, he is surprised by the lack of basic manners among young applicants. "A lot of the resumes I get are sloppy and filled with typos," he says. And some don't show up for scheduled interviews. "I started getting the sense that these kids didn't want to put forth the energy to get a job," he says.

To combat that kind of complaint, even in a climate of severe budget cuts, administrators at Goucher College opted to go ahead with its annual etiquette dinner in November. "We decided it's absolutely a good investment," says Traci Martin, director of career development, who has been organizing the event since 2002. Students from such academic departments as management, economics, and political science attend a three-course dinner, preceded by a "mocktail" party, where they are expected to greet people while juggling a drink and a plate of hors d'oeuvres. Later, students sit at tables, where they engage in polite small talk with Goucher alums while practicing their best table manners.

The evening features a presentation by Michele Pollard Patrick, founder and director of the D.C.-based National Protocol Ltd., who says she expected her education bookings to "disappear" in the current economy. Instead, she's busier than ever. She understands why: With more job applicants than openings, even little gestures can mean the difference between employment and days of pounding the pavement. "Why would a student want to risk the possibility that if they pick up a fork as if it's a pitchfork, they'll be ruled out?" she reasons.

Michael Peisser, a senior in the management department at Goucher, picked up some valuable tips at the event. During the cocktail hour: "Hold your glass in your left hand so your right is free to shake hands." As for memorizing names: "Look the person in the eye and repeat their name." If you break a glass: "Keep everything subtle and signal to a waiter."

Peisser will graduate this spring and is already starting to look for jobs in Baltimore and his hometown of Boston. If he makes it to a second round interview, which may include lunch or dinner, he is confident he will know the rules. And no matter what, he will pen a thank-you note. "A hand-written note is much more personal than an e-mail," Peisser affirms. And these days, it's the small gestures that get you noticed.