The return to civility In an era of bad manners, etiquette and etiquette teachers are enjoying a revival.

October 19, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Etiquette expert Dorothea Johnson tells the story of the businessman who came to her for help after losing out on a plum assignment.

At a lunch meeting with a senior executive in the company, he sat down and immediately started eating the salad in front of him. He looked up to see his boss, who hadn't picked up his fork yet, staring at him.

"I knew right then they weren't going to send me out," he said.

If only he had taken a dining tutorial offered by Johnson's Protocol School of Washington before his lunch, he would have known to wait until his host started eating.

In this era of take-out food and dress-down Fridays, etiquette is making a surprising comeback. There is a growing sense that bad manners are strong evidence of -- or perhaps the first step toward -- societal breakdown. Last year, a U.S. News & World Report/Bozell survey found that 78 percent of Americans feel that incivility has worsened in the last 10 years. Most of the people surveyed believed incivility has contributed to violence, divided national community and eroded values.

Bookstore shelves are filled with best sellers on modern problems like multicultural faux pas, gay etiquette and e-mail manners (not to mention more traditional volumes, such as this year's 75th anniversary edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette" and an endless number of Miss Manners books).

Business has never been brisker for etiquette classes. Companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for seminars and workshops with names like "Business Basics for Professional Polish" and "Customs and Protocol for Doing Business in the Global Marketplace."

Colleges and universities have jumped on the bandwagon to give their graduates a competitive edge in the job market. The University of Virginia, for instance, offers Corporate Etiquette Dinners to seniors who want to learn the ins and outs of power dining.

Joanne Mahanes, the career counselor who organized the dinners, explains: "Recruiters have not offered jobs to candidates who salt their food before tasting (it shows a tendency toward hasty decision making), or who order filet mignon. (They think such a person would go wild on an expense account.)"

But why? Why now, as the 20th century winds down? Why does it suddenly matter again to so many people that we don't know how to hold a wine glass, aren't sure when to send handwritten thank you notes and need someone to tell us what gift would be appropriate for the host or hostess at a dinner party?

(At a seated dinner, hold a white wine glass by the stem and a red wine glass by the bottom of the bowl. A handwritten thank you note is always proper. Don't bring cut flowers because the host will have to stop preparing dinner or greeting guests to find a vase. A bottle of wine or a plant are possible alternatives.)

No one is quite sure why good manners are relevant again -- or at least why etiquette experts are making a lot of money on classes, tutorials and books -- but here are some contributing factors:

It's a brave new world

Even 10 years ago most of us didn't need to know "netiquette" (etiquette for the Internet) or how to deal politely with beepers, call waiting or cellular phones.

We may know the right fork to use but still be unsure about the etiquette of modern technology. For that we are buying books like "Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication," published this year by Crown. The rules range from Don't write e-mail in capitals -- it's the equivalent of shouting -- to Don't pull your pager out and check it during religious services. (This latter is from "Pager Etiquette: Teenage Do's and Don'ts," a press release put out by Motorola.)

Do as I say, not as I do

Today's parents are realizing that while good manners will help their children get along in life, they aren't the ones to teach them.

"Two generations now haven't been taught manners," says columnist and author Letitia Baldrige, whose latest book is "More Than Manners -- Raising Today's Kids to Have Kind Manners and Good Hearts" (Rawson/Scribner). The rebellious '60s and '70s, the greedy '80s: Those may be cliches, but clearly etiquette wasn't a top priority in the last few decades.

Even if parents feel competent to teach manners, they may not have time to -- not with single-parent households or both parents working. If family mealtimes are a thing of the past, when are children going to learn not to butter all their bread at once or, more importantly, how to hold polite dinner-table conversation?

Corporate civility

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