A Minder to Mind Your Manners

By Mireya Navarro, The New York Times – 08/14/2005 – 12:00am


J. R. GOWAN, a 36-year-old screenwriter, said he had never thought of taking lessons in etiquette. It was his sister’s idea.

It came to Cameron Gowan after she had dated one too many men who forgot to open doors for her, who were rude to waiters or – and this was the deal breaker for her – who didn’t care enough about personal grooming to spare her the sight of eyebrows sprouting “two hairs that are a foot long.”

“If you don’t present yourself well – speak appropriately, no weird stray hairs – I don’t go on a second date with you,” said Ms. Gowan, 33, a law librarian in Washington. “I wanted to remind my brother how you treat a woman.”

Mr. Gowan agreed to sessions with a kind of personal etiquette trainer, not because he was “a total slob,” he said, but because he was shy. He figured that better manners could help him get dates and sell his science fiction scripts. And?

Too early to tell, he said. “People are not saying, ‘Wow! Your manners are better,’ ” Mr. Gowan said. “But I’m not looking at my feet. I certainly exude more confidence.”

Although there are no hard numbers on this, the etiquette industry (if that is the proper term) appears to be enjoying a sort of renaissance, if not a neo-Victorian age. Instructors, many of them working individually with clients as “etiquette consultants,” almost uniformly say there is a growing demand for their services.

The upsurge, they say, is being driven not just by parents who want their children to eat without repulsing dinner guests. More adults are also signing up for etiquette instruction. It is even a subject of higher education; colleges are increasingly offering etiquette seminars.

Motivations vary. Some clients believe that sharpening their social skills – how they hold a fork, enter a room, make conversation – will make them feel more confident. Others hope that a bit of social grace will give them an edge in the competition for jobs and dates, help them stand out among the barbarians.

Then there are those who see mastery of etiquette as another step in a tireless quest for self-improvement. One 35-year-old assistant movie producer, who took private etiquette lessons in March to help advance her career, said the move had already paid off. Rather than sitting in the car while her boss holds court over lunch in the Beverly Hills Hotel, she says she now joins the business meetings with the self-assurance of a Donald Trump.

The producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity – “How does it look that I had to pay for manners?” – said she aspired to be as elegant as the actress Grace Kelly and as prepared for company as if she were to meet the Queen of England. She said her boss now treats her more as an equal.

“If you think of all the money you spend on clothes and makeup, why not have a manners makeover?” she asked.

In two two-hour sessions, the producer said, she learned to sit properly by locking “your ankles so your knees are not spread apart” and resting her hands on her lap.

“What comes with all these techniques is a certain confidence, that confidence that says you’re as good as anybody else,” she said. “You walk taller. You command respect. I can drink my tea and be comfortable and not have that nagging thought in the back of my head that I don’t belong here.”

To hear the doyennes of etiquette tell it, more people want to learn manners because in many cases no one had taught them at home. Peggy Post, a great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post and a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., says rushed lives prevent many parents from teaching their children how to act. And Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington in Maine, which has trained etiquette instructors since 1988, cites computers.

“A lot of young people have spent so much time on the computer, they don’t have any face-to-face skills,” Ms. Johnson said. “They’re really challenged by small talk.”

Judging from the research, Americans can surely use the remedial training. National surveys routinely find that a majority of respondents view Americans as ever more unpolished and impolite. Loud cellphone conversations, sloppy grammar in e-mail and annoyingly indifferent store clerks are just some of what draws complaints.

“You’d be surprised how many times at a banquet someone is drinking your water,” said Kimberly Anderson, an etiquette trainer in Orange County, Calif.

But the population’s increasing gaucheness has inspired a kind of backlash, creating a boom for those who claim to be able to cure the problem. Like the rubes of “I Want to Be a Hilton,” it seems, people from all walks of life are striving to be, if not fabulously rich, at least fabulously presentable. Programs like the Etiquette-Network in Illinois and Etiquette Survival in California, which provide educational materials to those interested in starting etiquette businesses, report an increase in requests over the last five years.

Many colleges and universities are offering seminars and workshops on the art of dining and other niceties of etiquette so that students can be more presentable, and competitive, in the labor market. The College of Charleston in South Carolina offers seminars like “First Impressions” and “Power Etiquette.”

And booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble report rising sales for etiquette books. Beth Bingham, a spokeswoman for Borders, reported “double-digit sales growth in that category” over the last two years. Sharon Bosley, a buyer at Barnes & Noble, said that etiquette books were commanding more shelf space.

“There are a few more etiquette books now because there are new areas of etiquette that need addressing,” like e-mail and cellphone etiquette, Ms. Bosley said in an e-mail message.

“It’s a wonderful phenomenon,” said Nancy Mitchell, who has taught social etiquette classes at George Washington University and other colleges in the Washington area since 2002 and who worked as director of special events and protocol for the Library of Congress for more than 20 years. “We’re coming full circle from the 60’s, when everybody was letting it all hang out and everybody was taking potshots at rules and defying authority.”

While adult interest in etiquette training appears to be growing, much of the industry still revolves around children and teenagers, and any parent looking for classes can now find them at schools, museums, hotels and summer camps.

A spa and well-being camp run by Pali Overnight Adventures near Lake Arrowhead in Southern California promises “impeccable manners” for 12- to 16-year-olds. Four times a year the “petite protocol children’s etiquette” program at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles teaches “the art of introductions” and how to take messages and serve beverages.

Many etiquette teachers say their role has evolved to meet the needs of socially insecure clients who seem to want counseling as much as instruction. But most instructors are quick to say that they are not qualified to deal with behavioral problems or to be surrogate parents to unruly children and teenagers.

“Parents are looking for a kind of nanny,” said Ms. Anderson, the instructor in Orange County. “I issue a disclaimer: I’m not here to teach them not to spit at a restaurant. It needs to start at home.”

Some parents resort to etiquette instructors to coach their children through important periods of their lives. Donni Gray, 36, said she turned to a Los Angeles etiquette instructor, Amanda Wycoff, a year and a half ago when her daughter was 11 and had just switched schools. She was in a “grunge stage” and did not care much about her appearance, Ms. Gray said, but somehow Ms. Wycoff made her start combing her hair, building a circle of friends and volunteering to help teachers.

“Sometimes it takes another person giving input,” Ms. Gray said.

Now that her daughter is 13, Ms. Gray said, she plans to consult with Ms. Wycoff on grooming and social skills.

Ms. Wycoff, 27, who trained with the Etiquette-Network, said she gets about eight new students every month, half of them adults. Her business has quadrupled since 2000 without advertising, she said.

On a recent Thursday night Ms. Wycoff was coaching Ariel Stromberg, 25, who works as companion to children with behavioral problems. Mr. Stromberg said he had invited Ms. Wycoff to his home at the insistence of his older brother, who paid for the lesson. Initially defensive about the idea, he said he asked his brother if there was specific problem.

“He told me I blow my nose loud, and I look nervous when I come into a room,” Mr. Stromberg said.

Ms. Wycoff, who also worked with Mr. Gowan, the screenwriter, began with a questionnaire that identified some annoying behavior, like cracking his knuckles or abruptly changing the subject when he is not interested in a conversation.

Mr. Stromberg wanted to know how to avoid lulls in conversation during a date and how to say no to friends who ask for help moving.

Two hours later, after Ms. Wycoff had showed him how to stand, sit and walk in a manner befitting “the five C’s” of comportment – cool, calm, collected, confident and controlled – Mr. Stromberg said he actually looked forward to the second session.

“If it had been a different time of my life and someone had told me how to sit down, I would have said, ‘I don’t care,’ ” he said. “But at 25 you say: ‘I’m not 20. I want to be cool and collected. I want to excel.’ ”

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/14/fashion/sundaystyles/14ETIQUETTE.html

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