In the mid-1500s Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam published what is considered the world’s first book of manners. His advice included tips on what to do with unwanted bones at dinner time (toss them on the floor for the dogs), where children should be during mealtime (standing behind their parents, ready to eat only what was offered) and where to wipe greasy fingertips (on the tablecloth, since napkins had yet to be invented).
Still, though, much of what he wrote still resonates today. Consider his treatise on double-dipping: “It is rude to offer someone what you have half-eaten yourself; it is boorish to redip half-eaten bread into the soup.”
By the 18th century, forks had been introduced and diners were encouraged to use the new implements to pick up their food, rather than using their fingers or a hunting knife.
Today, thanks in part to Emily Post, who writes that the true value of manners and etiquette are to make others more comfortable in a given situation, rules have expanded from meal time to nearly all-the-time. While teaching and enforcing a formal code of behavior may sound restrictive, especially for children, etiquette coaches and experts have found that the opposite is actually true.
“The confidence that children gain from knowing how to respond in certain social situations is priceless,” says Jan Cohn, who runs the Greater Columbia Junior Cotillion. “Knowing how to introduce people, accept a compliment and even twirl spaghetti without making a mess are skills we all need.” Junior Cotillion is a two-year character and confidence building program that teaches manners, etiquette — which Jan prefers to call “life skills” — and contemporary ballroom dance to middle school boys and girls. “I have been the director of the Greater Columbia Junior Cotillion since its inception in 1993, and we have had over 6,000 students from 20 different middle schools come through the program,” Jan says.
At Junior Cotillion, they teach proper greetings and introductions, dress codes for all occasions, travel and theater etiquette, as well as ladies and gentlemen treating each other with honor, dignity and mutual respect. All of these skills are so important today, especially with the increasing use of technology among this age group. “There is a big change in how they view and conduct their lives … so openly,” Jan says. Social media sharing is eroding the most basic social skills such as direct eye contact and face-to-face verbal communication which makes these “life skills” more important than ever.
Mike Harmon, who owns and teaches a program called Little Man Boot Camp — which starts at age 4 — saw the need for structured training in manners and other areas when he was a teacher. “I did an experiment one morning as 400 students walked through the door,” he recalls. “Only one in 10 responded in a polite way when I said, ‘Good morning,’ or held the door for them. I don’t think they mean to be rude — they’re just used to being in their own world.”
To tap into that world, Little Man Boot Camp employs lessons in awareness and self-control, which Mike believes are crucial to development. He starts by teaching control of the body, using a game similar to freeze tag. “When the music stops and the boys have to freeze, it forces them to be conscious of their bodies,” he explains. Once he’s taught the boys to master their muscles, Mike uses similar exercises to teach control of the boys’ mouths and hands. “I use a toothpaste analogy to teach them to control what comes out of their mouths,” he notes. “I explain that when you squeeze out too much and make a mess you can say you’re sorry, but you can’t put it back in the tube, no matter how hard you try. Even little boys can visualize a toothpaste tube, so it makes sense to them.”
Little Man Boot Camp also focuses on attributes like courage, discipline and teamwork. “Once they learn to control themselves, they’re on the right path to becoming a generation of honorable men,” says Mike.
The program has been so successful that Mike’s wife, Catharine, has started a similar program for girls called Beautifully Tough. “We want girls to know that the true meaning of beauty; that is who they are on the inside which is directly related to how they treat and interact with others. Examples of that would be through teamwork and cooperation,” says Catharine. “We teach the girls how to put others before themselves in conversations and how to show engagement. The parents tell me they can see the impact immediately.”
Amy Moore, whose 7-year-old son, Wood, has been in Little Man Boot Camp since he was 4, says that the program has given her son a positive attitude, even when he’s asked to do something he really doesn’t want to do. “I can see him choosing to use his new skills instead of getting angry. We all do better when we feel like we have control of ourselves.”
Charles Cannon, whose son Charles has been in the program for one year, saw Mike in action before he registered Charles for the program. “The boys were focused and polite,” he says. “It’s a terrific program. Any time you know how to properly deal with a situation, it gives you confidence in yourself.”
That’s the message behind a class taught to undergraduates at USC’s Moore School of Business. “Knowing, and having practiced, the right approach to every social situation we can think of gives these young people the skills they need to present themselves to potential employers with confidence,” says Georgia Doran, director of the Moore School’s office of career management. “Recruiters tell me that seeing how a young person responds in social situations is the final test for employment. We tell students that if you’re at the dinner table wondering which fork to use, you’re focus isn’t on showing how you’ll add value to a company.”
The Moore School class touches on numerous aspects, particularly conversation. “It’s hard for this tech-driven generation, who tends to converse with texts instead of with their mouths,” says Georgia. “We teach them how to be other-centered instead of self-centered by asking questions that prompt responses, avoiding distraction and focusing on the answers.”
Students also practice breaking into a group conversation at a party, closing a conversation with a positive last impression and what types of questions to ask. “We remind them that everyone would rather spend time with a listener than a talker,” says Georgia.
The University also holds regular etiquette dinners to help students hone their table skills. “Between travel sports teams and busy schedules, a lot of students never learned much more than not to put their elbows on the table,” notes Georgia. “Even the smartest person can make a bad impression if they don’t know how to hold themselves during a meal. Corporate executives want to hire people who will support the brand of the company they work for, and part of that brand is often social skills.”
Children can benefit from learning the basics of etiquette long before college, says Marriage and Family Therapist Claudia Guignard. “The confidence you give your child by teaching him or her how to act in a given situation may give them the confidence to say ‘no’ when they need to.” Claudia also notes the importance of setting healthy boundaries. “Negative traits, which include manners, often come from not having boundaries,” she explains. Or, as Mike Harmon says with a laugh, “Nobody wants to be the parent of the out-of-control child in the room.”