Think etiquette has gone the way of the dodo? Think again. Learning to mimic Kate Middleton’s grace and style is on the upswing. The Plaza Hotel in New York City recently introduced etiquette classes with topics ranging from networking to dining and social skills. It seems the casual culture of our post-recession world, combined with our penchant for gluing ourselves to iPhones and iPads, have left many with the need to brush up on their manners and interpersonal skills. “We are so dependent on electronic devices that we are losing the skills crucial to success,” says Myka Meier, Founder of Beaumont Etiquette, the company that runs the program. “If you have bad manners, that is what people will take away from your date or business meeting, not whatever intelligent thing you talked about.”
Millennials who grew up in an iWorld are not the only ones seeking a refresher course in minding their P’s and Q’s. Couples hoping to skirt a holiday dining faux pas are attending right alongside Generation Xers and corporate execs aiming to become fluent in the art of small talk and avoid conversational quicksand.
Meier trained in London under a former member of the royal household of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. “William and Kate have made etiquette cool again,” Meier says. “They are a great example of a modern family that is well behaved and polished while having fun.” While we commoners aren’t under the same scrutiny as the Royal Family, Meier’s unstuffy classes are chockfull of helpful tips we can incorporate into our everyday lives.
How to drink champagne or wine correctly? Always use the stem to hold the glass, never the bowl. What’s the best conversation starter? Ask something that provokes a thoughtful answer such as, “What was the most memorable thing that happened to you today?” Confused when making introductions? Whoever you want to show respect to is the person introduced first: “Senator Jones, may I introduce you to Mrs. Cassidy.”
Closer to home, children as young as four all the way up to corporate VIPs are learning social skills at The International School of Protocol in Towson. “Etiquette is alive and well, I don’t think it ever went out of fashion,” co-director Cathleen Hanson says. “When in doubt about the right thing to do, always think of the other person before yourself, you can’t go wrong.”
With the holiday season in high gear, Hanson suggests arriving at parties with a few topics that aren’t about religion, politics, health or anything negative. Above all, don’t brag or boast. “If someone says they’ve just returned from Italy, don’t say you have a villa in Italy. Instead, ask them about their favorite city or experience. Don’t outdo them,” says Hanson.
Best time for a toast? Hanson says if you’re the host, toast either at the beginning of the meal or before dessert. And, if you are the one being toasted, don’t touch that glass — everyone takes a drink except you, the honoree. (Taking a sip would be the equivalent of clapping for yourself.) As an honoree, a nice gesture is to give a toast to everyone else in return. Then it’s okay to take a sip.
Flowers for a hostess gift? That’s a no-no. Flowers are a nuisance for the host. He or she needs to search for a vase, get water and figure out where to put them. Stick with a lovely candle, fancy cocktail napkins, note cards or a special bottle of wine from your wine cellar.
When it comes to eating, Hanson has a solution for every dining dilemma. How to eat asparagus? If the stalk is firm and not covered in sauce, it is proper to pick it up from the non-flowered end with your fingers. But before you even think of touching one stalk, keep an eye on your host and follow his or her lead. If the host cuts it in bite size pieces, so should you.
Shrimp Cocktail? Cut the shrimp with a knife and fork when served on a flat plate. When served in a stemmed glass, use a cocktail fork and take a bite at a time. Fruit tarts? Secure the tart with the fork and eat it with a spoon. (Keep that knife still!)
Speaking of cutlery, we North Americans eat differently from the rest of the world. Everyone else eats Continental style where the fork stays in the left hand (tines down) and the knife is in the right hand. Food is speared by the fork and brought to the mouth. Hanson believes eventually all Americans will eat Continental style as well-traveled young people adopt this style of eating. She cautions that it takes time to get it right so practice at home before trying it out in public.
Perhaps the most important etiquette lesson to learn is that if you spot bad etiquette from other guests, don’t say a word. Pointing it out is, well, bad etiquette.
Etiquette is all about showing kindness to others. “It simply means being thoughtful, respectful and gracious to everyone around you. Think of others first and throw kindness like confetti. Nothing bad has ever come out of being kind,” Meier says. We can’t argue with that.
For a schedule of classes and prices:
Beaumont Etiquette at The Plaza Hotel, NYC
International School of Protocol
Tips from The Plaza Hotel’s Etiquette School:
+ Never shake hands while seated. If someone walks up to your table, do not extend a hand while sitting. Always stand — no matter your gender.
+ Never say “Please RSVP” because that is redundant. RSVP means please respond in French.
+ Never point. Simply flip your hand upside down keeping all of your fingers together and refer to the direction or person you want to draw attention to.
+ If you need to leave the room simply say, “Please excuse me,” never “Pardon me.” Asking for a pardon is reserved for service staff.
+ If you have food in your mouth and someone asks you a question, you’ve taken too big a bite if you have to chew for longer than 15 seconds before you can answer. Also, put your silverware down and take a mandatory eating break after four bites in a row.
+ Dab your mouth (never rub) using the inside end of your napkin so your dining companions never see a napkin stain.
+ Don’t be tardy to the party, but what’s worse is arriving early. That’s when the host is lighting the candles and taking care of last minute emergencies. If the invitation calls for 6 p.m. arrive at 6:10.
+ Absolutely no lipstick or makeup application at the table or anywhere in public!
+ Knees together when seated; Cross at the ankle. Never cross your legs at the knees.
+ Slow down when you talk. Use your hands less.
+ The cheek kiss: It’s one kiss (right cheek to right cheek) in America. If you travel to Europe, it can be two or three depending on the country.
+ Poor posture signals a lack of confidence and can imply that you are disinterested or not paying attention. Shoulders are always rolled back, sit up straight and don’t lean into the back of your chair. When you do, your spine relaxes and you look like you are slouching.