Mind your Manners, Mids

Etiquette: The Naval Academy brings in Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, to lecture the freshman class.

April 06, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

A new enemy is on the loose at the Naval Academy, a menace so insidious that it has driven midshipmen to step on the toes of waltz partners, forget to write thank-you notes and - whither decency? - attack a salad with the wrong fork.

So military leaders have summoned the special forces: she of the upswept hair and the gently wagging finger. Code name: Miss Manners.

"She's a recognized expert in the field, so why not go right for the top?" says Cmdr. Bill Spann, the Naval Academy spokesman.

Judith Martin, the author of the syndicated Miss Manners column, is joining the academy's battle against the clumsy, the rude and the plain not nice. She will fire an opening shot tomorrow afternoon: She will lecture the entire freshman class.

A decade ago, a cheating scandal at the academy spawned programs to shore up students' ethical judgment. Now, the school wants to encase that moral compass in velvet.

In courses on Sunday afternoons, freshmen have been learning the proper way to deliver a toast, answer a telephone, write a thank-you note, sweep a partner across a dance floor, handle silverware and work a reception line.

The school launched its "officership program" for plebes last year and is exploring ways to expand it to all four classes.

Martin, whose column appears in more than 200 newspapers, is its first speaker of national stature.

"In professions dealing with high-stakes conflicts, etiquette must be much stricter than is necessary in the society at large," she said last week in an e-mail interview, a hint of the talking-to the plebes are in for. "The respective rules of dress, gesture, language, recognition of hierarchy, ritualized procedure and such are strongly enforced for the reason that otherwise, mayhem would ensue."

Well, now, no one would want that.

Some might see incongruity in the idea of warriors going to finishing school. Academy officials seem a little shy about it themselves; they have barred reporters from observing the classes.

Still, they say that the training breeds a well-rounded officer. "Part of being an officer and a gentleman means knowing how to act in high-level social events," says Spann. "This is an aspect of our nation's education system that they don't come to as having already learned."

Joseph A. Heyne first heard of Miss Manners in fifth grade, when his mother told him he might benefit from reading one of her books. He didn't bother.

Now, as a 19-year-old plebe, he says that the Sunday classes have shown him how much he didn't know. "You can send a negative image without even knowing it," he said yesterday. "We reflect on the whole military."

He does have one beef with the ballroom dancing instruction, however. "We just wish there would be more girls. We've been trying to get some to come from other colleges, but it's hard with the tightened security. But if you know of any. ... "

The military, because of the need for order, has always been a thicket of rules, customs and ceremony. Protocol dictates the correct way to display flags, salute, bury at sea, visit a ship's sick bay, arrange seats at formal dinners, dress at weddings and, in the old days, decide appropriate grounds for a duel.

"It is important that the officer corps acquire the tastes of refined society and enlightened men," declares Naval Customs, Traditions & Usage, a bible on etiquette. "Rude and unpleasant strains in social intercourse are conspicuously absent in a Nelson, a Wellington, a Washington."

In 1953, the Naval Academy produced an instructional film titled Manners for Mids. It is a cautionary tale of two midshipmen - one a model of refinement, the other a boor - who go to dinner at the home of a senior officer and his wife.

It illustrates the disagreeable social consequences of piling too much food on one's fork, wadding one's napkin, sopping bread with gravy and, yes, picking one's teeth.

"If you have something in your mouth or in a tooth that is bothering you, don't make an evident production of it," the narrator intones. "Better leave it there or swallow it."

The boorish midshipman's faux pas are followed by a quick cut to the dinner's "hostess" furrowing her brow and shaking her head. In contrast, his refined counterpart's elegant graces invite approving nods.

As the film closes, the narrator declares that good manners mark the difference between a gentleman and "a misfit of society."

Miss Manners would probably not put it so bluntly, even if she did title one of her books Miss Manners Rescues Civilization. She rails against those who confuse manners with snobbery. Etiquette, in her view, makes life more pleasant for everyone.

Martin, who is waiving the fee for her talk tomorrow, has addressed the academy once before, in the mid-1980s. Her only other speech at a military school was at the Virginia Military Institute a year and a half ago.

Still, she says, she likes audiences with so deep an appreciation for what she has called, in the words of one of her books, "excruciatingly correct behavior."

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