Putting The Charm in Charm City

Baltimore Magazine, November 2006

by Jane Marion

“How long do you have to make a first impression?” Carol Haislip asks a group of middle-schoolers at the Southeast Youth Academy after-school program in Highlandtown.

“Five minutes,” calls out one student. Another says, “Five weeks.” Yet another says, “Five days.”

Haislip smiles. She is dressed in a just-to-the-knee, perfectly pressed beige suit with gold buttons and a nametag properly placed to the right side of her jacket announcing herself as the Director of the International School of Protocol.

“Three to four seconds is all that it takes,” she says—slowly, for impact. “In my previous job at a major corporation, I interviewed hundreds of people, and I realized after twenty years of doing this, it didn't matter how smart you were, it didn't matter what grades you got in school, if you could look someone in the eye, shake their hand, carry on a conversation, and make a good first impression, you were going to be successful.

“Success means something different for each of us,” she adds, pausing to relish the rapt attention. “but don’t we all want to be successful?”

For Haislip and fellow Protocol School Director Cathleen Hanson, her presence here today, teaching proper manners in a yellow cinder block room to a group of giggling pre-teens, is success. As directors of the 12-year-old International School of Protocol, it is their goal to make the Baltimore area a more polite place and to help children and adults gracefully negotiate the unwritten rules of civilized society.

Twelve years ago, Hanson was an adjunct faculty member of communications at Towson University and Haislip was a vice president at Allfirst Bank. The duo, who became friends while their children were in school, ran a program that taught ballroom dancing (and, in the process, social skills) to children in the Monkton area. “The parents said, ‘I like the dance class,’” recalls Haislip, “but I really like the part where they learn how to shake hands and learn how to behave.’ The more we kept hearing that, the more we thought there might be a market for this.”

At the same time, both women found themselves dismayed at the lack of manners they saw in their respective jobs. “I was noticing that students had gotten really rude,” says Hanson. “Whereas before the teacher was respected if a student was caught plagiarizing or did something really wrong, now the student would act entitled. It was just so remarkable that they didn’t have to come to class on time or didn’t have to behave in a certain way. I saw the climate changing, and this atmosphere that was invading everything.”

“Just one example,” she continues. “ I had a very lovely, smart student come in and give a speech one day with her navel and new belly button ring showing. I just thought to myself, ‘What is she thinking?’ I can’t remember her speech, but to this day, I still remember the way she dressed.”

Even in the world of finance, Haislip was experiencing her own dose of disrespect. “I’ll never forget the one young man who had come for and interview, walked into my office, walked around my desk, and sat down in my desk chair,” she recalls. “If he had only waited for me to say, ‘Won’t you have a seat,’ I would have shown him which chair to sit in, and we wouldn’t have had the problem. He was very nervous and I felt sorry for him, but it was definitely downhill from there, and needless to say, he didn’t get the job.”

Now, with corporate offices in Hunt Valley and numerous outreach programs run each year in inner-city schools, homes for at-risk children, country clubs, churches, camps, youth centers, and Fortune 500 companies across the country, Haislip and Hanson have turned teaching protocol into a cottage industry. The “Manners Ladies,” as they are affectionately known around town, play to packed crowds and have waiting lists for many of their classes on everything from table manners to interviewing skills for both kids and adults. And unlike many schools that teach etiquette only, this school covers not only how to hold a fish fork but appropriate codes of conduct (as in regularly saying “please” and “thank you”) which, Haislip and Hanson believe, are necessary for success in society. Their manners manifesto: “Bringing back civility, one person at a time.”

“So much of interaction we have today is not face-to-face,” points out Haislip. “If you think about the fact that you can sit at home at the computer to do your work, it doesn’t matter what you look like or how you treat other people. The cell phones and the voice mails and the instant messaging have taken away that person-to-person interaction, and because of that we have become a much ruder lot.”

Two days after her presentation in Highlandtown, Haislip’s venue has changes noticeably, though the message is similar: Manner matter. This time, she’s giving it to a group of eighth-graders at Our Lady of Grace parochial school in Parkton, here to learn interviewing skills before they apply to private high schools.

“Your hair needs to be brushed and clean, your shoes need to be polished—and polishable, meaning no sneakers,” she coaches the students as she looks each and every one of them in the eye. “The story goes that when Henry Ford would interview someone for a job, they could be impeccably dressed, but if they had shoes that weren’t polished, he wouldn’t hire them because of their lack of attention to details—so remember, it’s the little things that matter.”

The students listen intensely. A few take notes and ask questions. “Can I wear a denim skirt?” asks one young women. “Yes, you can,” says Haislip, “as long as there is no fringe on the bottom.”

“Can I wear sandals?” asks another.

“A closed-toe shoe would be better,” Haislip answers. “remember, you are going to be doing a lot of walking on campus.”

Lynn Plack says the School of Protocol’s class helped her 12-year-old daughter, Martha, a ninth-grader at Garrison Forest School, when she was applying to private schools. “ I have four children with various levels of social skills,” says Plack. “And I learned that social skills are something you can teach kids, and they can be extremely painful for kids who don’t have them. My daughter absolutely shined during her interview and used to many of the things she learned.”

Martha Plack agrees, adding she’s used her newfound knowledge for more than just school interviews. “I taught everyone about the proper table settings this summer at my wait station job at Warren’s Station on Fenwick Island,” she says. “The class was really fun…I sill use the firm handshake and make sure to make good eye contact when I talk to people.”

Charmayne Little, director of Southeast Youth Academy, agrees that these classes can be immensely helpful. “I can’t overstate this—I have seen these kids transformed,” she says. Learning etiquette helped the kids with interviewing skills, social development skills, self esteem, and image. One young man in particular whose socioeconomic background was low—one parent was deceased, the other one was a substance abuser—was quiet and kept to himself. It was a really sad situation. He wanted to attend Mount St. Joseph for high school. [Haislip and Hanson] worked with him on interviewing skills, and after the interview the school commented on his manners. He ended up attending the school.”

Clearly, the classes are working. “I use everything I learned from public speaking to continental style eating because I have an internship at a brokerage [firm] in Rockville right now,” says 17-year-old Aditya Sahajwalla, a senior at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School and an International School of Protocol “graduate.” “Before this internship, I was an intern for the Food and Drug Administration, and they complimented me on how I conducted myself and said that I am good at dealing with people. Good manners are not as common today. They help you stick out in any situation, and people will remember you if you have them. It’s all about first impressions.”