Minding Our Manners

Proper etiquette isn’t about adhering to dusty old rules, it’s about possessing enough social capital to feel at ease in any situation.

November 15, 2007 | | Back Issues

When Shirley Brennan told two of her daughters she had enrolled them in an etiquette class, they asked why they were being punished. After the first class, however, they walked out of the Gibson Centre in Alliston smiling and laughing. Mom needn’t have worried. Table manners were fun and the girls especially loved learning about telephone etiquette, using real phones as props.

Marja Chevalier of Orangeville and Marion Bell of Alliston started the International School of Manners and Etiquette a year ago with the goal of offering entertaining, hands-on instruction to spread the good-manners gospel.

The duo operates out of various spaces in and around the Headwaters region, including the centre in Alliston. They focus on classes for children, but also offer private lessons for adults on such topics as etiquette for weddings, business meetings and even making small talk. One upcoming class on the art of conversation at Base Borden will be attended by military officers and their spouses as a tune-up for the dinner and cocktail circuit. They are also currently in discussion with local professional colleges about adding etiquette training to a number of their programs, from business management to hairdressing.

Friends for years, the decline in manners had popped up in many a conversation between the two women. They met when they both worked at Pearson airport – where they shared their frustrations about adults who talked on their cellphones throughout the check-in process and young employees who were whizzes on the computer, but lacked basic social skills. As for bank tellers who chew gum or the scourge of limp handshakes, well, you didn’t want to get them started.

Marion, 52, came to Canada from Ireland as a nanny twenty-four years ago and later worked in a nursery school. She says that although she always firmly insisted on good manners from her small charges, “They all still loved me!” She and her husband have three kids aged ten and under.

Marja, 55, grew up in Holland and Quebec City in the kind of household in which gloves for ladies were de rigeur, manners were ingrained and, for a time, she even wore a harness at the table to correct her posture. While that sounds extreme, Marja says, she now feels like she can “go anywhere and be comfortable.” She is the mother of two sons in their twenties.

The seed that turned their gripes about missing-in-action manners into a business plan occurred when Marion saw an advertisement for an etiquette school in an American publication. Intrigued, she did a little research and discovered that while such schools are relatively common south of the border, there are few, if any, in Canada.

Now, they’ve replaced their casual judgments about people’s lack of graces with an understanding of how manners can slide. Contemporary life is busy. In most households, both parents work. Kids and adults alike fill their spare time with computers, iPods and cellphones that chip away at family face-time.

And it’s hard to develop good table manners, Marja says, when the family dinner is in decline. It’s being replaced by meals eaten in cars on the way to sports practice, or in front of the television or even standing in front of the refrigerator.

“Parents are too tired to nag,” says Marja. “Things get forgotten.”

Marion relates that she has watched children who, as they leave school, toss their knapsacks at their parents’ feet to be picked up.

Still, though few would argue that rudeness is on the rise, when Marion and Marja tell people about their new business, they’re sometimes greeted with skepticism.

Isn’t sending a child to one of their classes outsourcing a key parenting job?

Maybe, they say, but one whose time has come. It sometimes takes them a moment, but “when people stop and think about it, they say, ‘That really is a good idea.’”

What not to do: Liam and Riley demonstrate some dinner table “don’ts” with gusto. Photo by Pauline Hayman.

What not to do: Liam and Riley demonstrate some dinner table “don’ts” with gusto. Photo by Pauline Hayman.

For now, lessons are geared to two age groups: six to nine and ten to thirteen. Marion insists that even for the most manners-challenged kid, “all is not lost.” Their approach relies less on upper-crust stereotypes and more on boosting a child’s self-esteem by letting him or her in on a few tricks of the trade. Knowing the proper way to use a fork or to make an introduction isn’t a matter of adhering to dusty old rules, it’s about possessing enough social capital to feel at ease in any situation.

“If nothing else, if you have good manners and you’re polite, it will take you a long way,” Marion says. And Marja likes to use the analogy of exercising a muscle. “It’s good to practice everyday,” she tells kids. “You could be invited to eat lunch with the Queen.”

Topics that cover that possibility, as well as lesser occasions, include looking people in the eye and introducing oneself. Kids also learn tips on how to set a table, say please and thank you, and the little ones learn how to resist swinging in their chair during a meal.

At the end of a recent class, Marja says she watched as the boys in particular deployed their new tools. While the little girls were all hugs as they left, the boys “stuck their hands out. We had given them an out.” And when you’re an awkward boy outgrowing hugs, a viable second option is a gift.

Marja and Marion may be teaching kids the good graces they don’t see at home. Or they may be reinforcing what parents are already trying to instill. They don’t know which is the case, but they’re careful to position their instruction as learning a skill rather than judging behaviour.

“You hope they’re picking up manners at home,” says Shirley Brennan. “But sometimes they need reinforcement.” Making the connection between parents’ rules and their broader social world can be one of the big payoffs of the sessions, says Marion, especially when it may defuse a routine argument with mom.

The message that social confidence improves self-esteem is a key one at the school. Children begin and end each class by looking into a mirror and paying themselves a compliment.

One small child, who was so shy he could barely look at himself when the first class began, finished by looking into the mirror and saying, “I’m great. I did great.”

Meaghan Pickering looks in the mirror and pays herself a compliment. Photo by Pauline Hayman.

Meaghan Pickering looks in the mirror and pays herself a compliment. Photo by Pauline Hayman.

Marion and Marja use humour to help nudge kids toward that kind of breakthrough. Marion calls herself the “loud and gabby one,” because she takes on the roles of grannies who need a seat and burly teenagers who lumber into the dining room and rudely demand dinner. “I like to make them laugh.”

The more relaxed kids, and adults, feel about behaving well, Marja says, the more they can enjoy the moment, whether it’s a cozy meal at home or dinner in a fancy restaurant. “It makes you feel special. That’s part of what manners are.”

Shirley Brennan says that was her hope for her daughters, ages seven and nine. She doesn’t want her kids ever to feel a moment of panic before a function or miss any “chances in life.” And, despite their initial groans, Shirley says her daughters continue to chatter about their experience. (She has now enrolled her eleven-year-old in an upcoming session.).

“The tips really brought out their self esteem as well,” she says. “Too often kids stand in the shadows because they don’t know how to look you in the eye. We underestimate them.”

Since the class wrapped up, Shirley has watched with pleasure as her daughters make their way around a gathering and introduce themselves to the adults. On one occasion, when her daughter inadvertently walked between two adults who were in conversation, she politely excused herself. After one of the adults noted her good manners, she proudly told her mother, “Obviously the course is paying off.”

Where does the napkin go?
by Pauline Hayman

Nine children line up to greet their teachers, saying hello and making light conversation. One boy gazes off into the corner as he grips his teacher’s hand. She gently corrects him: “I’m not over in that corner. I’m right here, so you have to look at me here.”

The children are assembled for a course in table manners. And the first task is learning to set the table. They each take a place setting from the colourful array of plastic dishes, cutlery, napkins and glasses provided. The boys team up at one end of the long table, the girls congregate at the other. Each child organizes his or her setting, but a few are uncertain, glancing at others for clues.

Teacher Marion Bell begins by asking the group where they think the napkin goes. Hands fly up: “…on your knee… fold it up… put it under your plate … under your fork.” Marion flips her napkin into the air, draping it comically over her head. She wobbles her head back and forth and the kids break up. “Can I do this with my napkin?” she questions.

Humour plays a big part in the lesson as the teachers weave in some silliness with the serious business of table etiquette. Teacher Marja Chevalier glides down behind the boys and asks the class if it’s okay to shred your napkin and scatter it at your feet like confetti. At the other end of the table, the girls chime up with a resounding “No!”

“Precisely,” responds Marja, and with a kind word she sends the offender under the table to pick up the mess, coolly laying a new napkin on his place setting. The boys snicker, but they are learning the ways of proper dining in spite of themselves.

Soon order is restored and baskets of invisible bread are passed while the children make polite dinner conversation, punctuated with many a please and thank you.

Marja and Marion fit a lot of learning into the session, covering everything from chewing with your mouth closed to handling accidental noises, such as burping. They also cover the things you shouldn’t talk about – gross or frightening things that might scare someone or put them off their food. The kids are eager to explore this area some more, but the teachers are full steam ahead into what to do in the delicate situation of having something inedible in your mouth – something so distasteful that swallowing is out of the question.

Meaghan Pickering, her eyes bright with anticipation, asks if it’s all right to feed it to your dog under the table – her aunt and uncle feed their dog leftovers with gravy on top.

The teachers finish off the class with a long list of no-nos – no licking the dishes, no cellphones, no games, no hats, no reading, no sticking spoons on your nose, no burping, no food fights, and no feeding the dog under the table. Besides, it might make him sick and that’s just not good manners, even for a dog!

Holiday Manners

Christmas is a very special time, but it can also be stressful. Marja and Marion offer these tips for keeping the peace – and instilling manners that will last beyond the Christmas pudding.

  • If your family goes to church on Christmas Eve, have toddlers and children up to ten years old take a nap in the afternoon. If not, get the children to bed early. They will be up at the crack of dawn and will enjoy the long day ahead much more if they aren’t tired (and so will you).
  • When you open presents on Christmas morning, have everyone take turns, so each gift can be properly appreciated. You might even consider pausing for breakfast or to allow the children to go outside to play and recharge.
  • Have children take part in the holiday dinner preparations. The little ones can fold napkins and the teens can help get things ready in the kitchen.
  • Make sure there is enough time for everyone to shower and change into dress clothes for this important family occasion.
  • No baseball caps, head phones or video games at the table.
  • If the children are sitting at the main table, mix them among the adults. If youngsters are at a separate table, have them set and decorate it themselves.
  • Young children are not usually able to sit at the table for a long time. Plan an activity they can do quietly in a nearby room between courses and after dessert. They shouldn’t be running around the table while others are still eating.

About the Author More by Tralee Pearce

Tralee Pearce is the deputy editor of In The Hills Magazine.


1 Comment

  1. Just wondering if the school for manners is still in operation ? And if so, can you please forward me any info you can on it. Thank You

    bryan london on Mar 10, 2015 at 8:32 am | Reply

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