MIT offers a one-day etiquette course called Charm School. It runs all day and offers instruction in things like first impressions, dressing for success, and business dining etiquette. The course has been offered for 19 years and was conceived as a way to round out otherwise nerdy students. Nerd polish, as it were. What a great idea, especially in these hard times when even a molecular biologist from MIT might have a hard time finding employment. A little polish might just be what it takes to get the job! I did a little research fully expecting to find other schools that offer a similar course, and I found none. Maybe similar instruction is available as a non-credit course but I couldn’t find it. Why not? These skills are important, and they are not being taught at home or in school.
When my daughter was young, she had lots of friends over to the house, and I was always amazed at the lack of table manners. I’m hoping that her grade-school chums have learned better since then but I would not be surprised to learn that they haven’t. If they were eating like Neanderthals at 10, they probably still are. I saw kids holding their utensils like cavemen stabbing a wildebeest. Napkins on the table, not the lap. Elbows propped to accommodate lowered heads and an embarrassing shoveling technique. And I’ve seen similar table manners in plenty of adults who should know better.
As my daughter got older, the symptoms of teen etiquette malaise became apparent: wimpy handshakes, inability to converse and a general lack of respectful behavior. Young adults no longer write thank-you notes and, if they do, they don’t know how to write them well. They may think it’s an unnecessary social tool in this world of email and texting but ask any corporate executive, and he’ll tell you that the hand-written note shows some class.
Young adults may think knowing which fork to use and how to properly place a napkin on your lap are silly skills, unimportant in today’s busy world and certainly secondary to that well-earned college degree, but they would be mistaken. It still matters.
Why is an entire generation devoid of important social skills? Maybe Mom and Dad are baby boomers who changed the world back in their day by protesting and challenging and rejecting their own parents’ convention. Politically correct school curriculum no longer offers home economics where students were taught silverware etiquette and table manners.
Growing up, my mother made sure we learned. She’d put a broomstick behind my elbows and behind my back to show me correct posture. She’d insist that we come down to the living room on bridge night and say hello, politely and respectfully, to her card-playing friends. We had to answer the phone a certain way and were not allowed to call adults by their first name. If I asked her, “Where’s the scissors at?” she’d answer, “Behind the at.” Think about it.
So if you didn’t learn it at home and it isn’t offered at your school, take the time to hone these skills. Learn how to look someone in the eye when talking, how to tie a tie correctly. Learn how to handle a confrontational discussion and how to give a proper handshake. Pay attention to grammar when you speak! Grammar ignorance can send your perceived intelligence plummeting. Wear an ironed shirt to an interview, sit up straight and, if you want the edge, send a thank-you note. If you need any help, give my mom a call.