By Christopher O’Donnell, Herald Tribune – 02/25/2008 – 12:00am
BRADENTON — The girls in Patricia Persson’s etiquette class arrive wearing long flowing dresses and white gloves.
For one hour, they practice introductions and ballroom steps. They sip lemonade from small punch glasses and daintily dab at the corners of their mouths with silk napkins.
The girls, ages 8 to 11, receive instruction in some of the more obvious points of politeness, such as always look a person in the eye when you shake his hand. But they also learn more nuanced rules such as why you should never take the last cookie or slice of pizza (because someone else might want it.)
Persson started the weekly class in Bradenton to try to bring back civility and decorum, which she fears are disappearing from a generation of young people used to an informal world full of fast food, casual clothes and impersonal iPods and cell phones.
The notion that manners still matter is gaining traction elsewhere. Groups such as the Emily Post Institute are reporting a high interest in etiquette classes, and more companies are paying etiquette experts to polish p’s and q’s in the workplace.
The Roy McBean Boys & Girls Club in Sarasota runs a class to teach young people table manners.
“I think the pendulum has swung too far,” said Sue Fox, author of “Etiquette for Dummies.”
“Somehow we get these gadgets in our hands and we become so self-absorbed. People don’t know how rude it is to answer a cell phone while you’re talking to someone.”
Persson, 46, a substitute teacher and mother of three, wears pearls as she teaches the class dressed in a knee-length dress and formal jacket. Her hair is tied neatly back.
The once-a-week class has so far attracted only girls.
“Shake hands and make eye contact,” Persson encouraged Emma Jones as the 8-year-old practiced introductions. “Stand up straight.”
Other recommendations seem to belong to a different era. Persson tells the girl when to curtsy, and that they should never turn down a young man who asks them to dance because they are waiting for a better offer.
“I want to bring grace back to the art of raising a family, and I want to encourage respect among children and adults,” Persson said. “Comfortable is fine but you can still be polite.”
The class appeals to parents who say there is not enough time to teach children more than basic manners these days. Others say the skills will make their daughters more confident and well-rounded.
“It makes them better people,” said Liz Bright, who is sending her daughters Sally, 11, and Emma, 9, to Persson’s class.
The pupils showed the most enthusiasm for the ballroom portion of the class. They practice waltz and swing steps, taking turns with dance instructor Souhad Chawi of the Sarabay Dance Club.
“It’s good to know your manners, so when you go somewhere you don’t need to copy other people,” said 9-year-old Indre Zalepuya.
In the Roy McBean Boys & Girls Club in Newtown, 12- and 13-year-olds learn which bread roll at the dinner table is theirs, and what cutlery they should use with each course.
The class is taught by club board member Terry McGannon, who describes himself as “old school.”
He encourages boys to stand when girls arrive or leave the table, and to pull their chairs out for them.
“In today’s day and age, that is quaint, to put it nicely, but on the other hand, I tell the gentlemen you make a good impression on the ladies,” McGannon said. “That clicks with them, maybe not for the right motives.”
The six-week class concludes with McGannon’s pupils getting dressed up and going to a fancy restaurant to practice what they have learned.
“My hope is to establish a foundation for them,” McGannon said. “I don’t expect them to be full spit and polish at the end of it.”