Rules of Engagement

Urbanite Magazine, January 2007

by Michael Paulson

Last October, Goucher College invited Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, to speak to the student body about civility. “What emerged from our conversation,” says college president Sanford Ungar, “is that there’s this sort of common-sense standard. We know when we see it, and we know when we’ve violated it.” However, the invitation to Miss Manners was in part a response to that “rougher behavior” that occurs on campus toward the end of the semester as exams approach, according to Unger. “We definitely notice a difference at those times, so we’re trying to get ahead of that,” he says.

Ungar isn’t the only one noticing and responding to increased roughness. “Incivility is certainly a growing problem,” says Allan Slawson, coordinator of civility projects for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District near Cleveland, Ohio. Slawson taught math for thirty-three years but retired after growing weary of the escalating discourtesy in the classroom. “Respect is not something automatically given as it was at one time. It’s almost as if rudeness is valued.”

Slawson now helms a unique program that provides city public school students with comprehensive civility training, addressing issues of character development, empathy, compassion, and conflict resolution, among others. “The school has been forced to take on what was in the past a responsibility that we assumed parents were taking care of.”

Miss Manners and Allan Slawson are among a growing pool of professionals training both adults and young people in the lost art of courteous behavior. Schools and programs are popping up all over the country in response to our sense that we could and should conduct ourselves in a more appropriate manner, which makes you wonder: Has the whole notion of manners and civil behavior become a quaint and outdated concept? And if so, can a return to formal etiquette training solve the problem?

If there is a frontline in the local civility wars, the Hunt Valley-based International School of Protocol is arguably one of its forward bases. Cathleen Hanson, a cofounder of the school, says that the school’s mission is to bring back civility, one person at a time. Hanson and Carol Haislip founded the school thirteen years ago as a response to the lack of proper conduct they witnessed in their roles as a college professor and an executive at a major corporation, respectively. Offering training in protocol and etiquette to a broad demographic spectrum (from businesses to special needs adults to at-risk youth), the school holds classes covering an equal range of topics: effective networking, dining etiquette, how to dress like a professional, mingling. “These are skills we aren’t born knowing,” Hanson asserts. “Practice these skills and they will become a part of you, and people in turn will be respectful toward you.” Over the years, thousands have gone through the school’s programs, and in any given week the school offers ten to fifteen different classes.

At the heart of each class is a curriculum that stresses a return to fundamental manners. During a recent “Social Savvy” class for adults, Hanson greets her five students with a firm handshake, leaning in somewhat as she introduces herself. For the next couple of hours, Hanson teaches name badge placement, proper phone etiquette, the correct way to shake hands (keep your right hand free of rings and bracelets!), and sundry other rules that she says ensure success in a social environment.

During the dining instruction, students crowd around a table setting as Hanson explains what the funny-looking knife is for (fish) and elaborates on the mind-blurring series of rules involving gender and hierarchy that dictate who stands up when a diner leaves the table. The students role-play at making introductions, awkwardly discussing who will be the figure of higher authority—a necessary piece of information in the stratified realm of etiquette—and then take turns tentatively presenting each other.

The students’ reasons for attending the class are varied. A few IT workers feel their interpersonal skills need a boost, bemoaning the fact that their profession offers few chances for social interaction beyond the telephone or e-mail. A mother who enrolled her teen daughter in a similar course wanted to try her hand at what she calls “formal social training,” and a college student with corporate aspirations is seeking a certain polish to give him a competitive edge. Laura Brusca, who’s taken so many classes at the school that she now teaches a few, explains, “I was interested in learning more about fine dining. I thought it would give me more confidence.” The general feeling among adult students seems to be that they operate at a deficit when it comes to certain social codes.

These social codes and the resulting manners are discussed at length in the classes targeting children. In a lavender classroom filled with neat piles of silverware and board games based around table manners, the “Communication Skills for Kids” class meets with students ranging in age from 7 to 11. They introduce themselves and share where they go to school, rattling off the names of Baltimore-area private schools. Five boys and five girls then present their homework assignment: Learn a greeting from another country. Perhaps half successfully complete the task, entertaining their peers with French, Spanish, and Hebrew expressions; one preternatural 11 year old performs an eloquent Japanese greeting. (Later, it is revealed she graduated from one of the interview classes the school offers to give students a step up in the private school admissions process.)

It is quickly apparent that these are not Stepford children. They segregate themselves by gender, like elementary school students are wont to do, gossiping in hushed tones. The kids’ attention waxes and wanes; their eyes wander; they goof around. With some prodding from the instructor, a pair of girls demonstrates what it means to be good conversationalists. For more than two minutes, they stand in front of their classmates, lobbing polite chitchat back and forth, maintaining eye contact, moving from one subject to another (shoes, clothes, school); in almost eerie synchronicity, the girls sway to the left, then to the right as they talk, as if dancing in front of a mirror. The class ends with snacks, complete with a girl offering napkins (“Would you like a napkin?”) and a girl carrying a plate with the cookies (“You may take two cookies.”).

Do these lessons translate outside the classroom? “The school has definitely helped,” says Brusca, whose 10-year-old and 14-year-old sons have taken a few courses. “Kids like to hear something from a third party more than from Mom.” Brusca’s sons learned to write thank-you notes in International School of Protocol classes, a skill she reinforces at home. She recently encouraged her son to write a thank-you note to a school he received an offer from but declined to attend. He balked. “You never know when you’re going to cross paths with these people again,” she told him. “It’s part of building bridges for the next time.”

Hanson and Haislip also teach civility in YMCA of Central Maryland after-school programs. When the children, many of whom are considered “at risk,” complete three sessions of training, they are taken out for an evening of fine dining so they can practice their newly found grace. Bradley Alston, the operations director at the YMCA of Central Maryland who oversees these programs, believes etiquette training is critical. “The children become more conscious that there is a prescribed way of acting and relating to each other that goes back hundreds of years. Martin Luther King learned this at Morehouse in Atlanta; Thurgood Marshall learned it at Howard University; Booker T. Washington instituted this kind of training at Tuskegee.” Alston pauses for a moment. “The important thing is that the kids are exposed to it. Some things stick and some don’t. But they can’t say that they don’t know. We’ve planted the seed.”

Slawson agrees that manners training is not just for those with country club memberships and fish forks at their place settings. “It’s odd; some of our incivility grew out of the Civil Rights movement and feminism,” Slawson says. “As we got away from rules that were not exactly fair—rules that did not treat people as equals—we somehow at the same time threw out the good with the bad. We’re afraid of rules because we’re afraid that the rules are going to take us back to a time when you had a role.”

Slawson’s goal is to recover the good that we lost in the name of progress. “We have moved from roles to relationships,” he says. Hanson recognizes this shift as well. “In the United States your behavior and intelligence determines where you can go in life. These skills are the great equalizer.”

Complicating the issue further is technology. When people complain about rude behavior today, they are as likely to cite technology as they are to cite wayward young people. Cell phones, iPods, PDAs—the means and ways to be uncivil are often attributed to our newest gadgets. Just as the social rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s dramatically changed the way we relate to one another, technological developments have so outpaced our ability to gracefully integrate them into our public lives that there is genuinely no agreement on the proper use of electronics in public spaces.

Haislip and Hanson acknowledge the confusion and frustration that new technology can introduce, but they reassert that all the protocols can be reduced to thinking about how your behavior affects others. “We’ve eliminated a lot of the face-to-face interactions, and people do and say things they wouldn’t if they were face-to-face. But it’s all a common-sense litmus test. Where am I being inconsiderate to other people?” says Hanson.

Being polite and truly thoughtful takes some work, and it is part of human nature to conserve energy. But this work matters. “Instances as horrific as Columbine escalate from a single act of rudeness,” Haislip points out. But the debate over what to teach about civility and how to teach it in today’s environment goes on. “I sort of reject the notion that you can turn to a rulebook or an etiquette book to tell you how to solve a problem of community standards,” says Ungar.

Brusca believes that individual acts governed by the rules of etiquette add up to a gracious person. “It’s an exercise in making that connection between manners and civility,” she says.

Slawson’s goal is to teach kids common sense and to let them realize “I can still behave with civility even if I’m using the wrong fork,” he says. “Research shows that people cannot be successful in relationships without civility,” he adds. “Without success in relationships, there is a good chance that you’re going to have a limited chance at happiness.”

Everyone agrees that a healthy dose of common sense is critical in making decisions about how to behave and treat other people. “Civility just equates to thinking of others,” says Brusca. “It’s about eye contact and hand contact and taking a moment to give someone your full attention and say, ‘Hello.’”