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Mind Your Manners, or like increasing numbers of Americans, have an etiquette consultant mind them for you.
By: Patricia Gannon

Americans may know their Atkins from their South Beach, but when it comes to table manners, they’re in trouble.

The symptoms are everywhere: middle managers dipping their bread in the soup at formal dinners and gabbing on cell phones during a business lunch… small children roaming barefoot in restaurants as their older sibling sits catatonic, playing portable video games at the table. Not only are corporate “fathers” looking askance, but harried parents with too little time to ride head are searching for help.

“I think people are realizing the behavior problems and want to change,” says Stacey Carpin, one of a new wave of etiquette consultants. “Plus, they’re finding that to be corporately competitive, you have to be polished. They’re entrusting professionals to teach their children.”

Carpin runs Etissentials; a Michigan-based business focused primarily on teaching etiquette to young children. The International Society of Protocol and Etiquette Professionals reports a “growth of monumental proportions” over the past decade, with the fastest growing segment being social etiquette. Louisianians such as New Orleans etiquette consultant Katy Dongieux find the industry picking up across the board.

“The industry trend has happened quickly within the last seven years and is still picking up steam,” says Carpin. “Everyone’s realized the issue. We just had a call from a bank who wants to book two days of classroom time,” she says. We’ve sold out every event except two over the past three years and that’s just world of mouth.”

Once the domain of grandes dames and debutantes, etiquette’s resurgence comes partly from declining human interaction in a hi-tech world coupled with new demands from a global economy. Also contributing, is the social ineptitude of a younger generation growing up in households where proper manners are not encouraged. Given the fact that fewer families dine together in the fast-paced USA, it’s little wonder Americans commit major faux pas at an alarming rate.

“I think after throwing etiquette out 40 years ago, we’ve developed pretty bad habits,” says Dongieux. “Everyone’s rude. You need standards and people need rules in order to behave correctly.”

Both believe one should train up a child in the way it should go, and Carpin starts children on their way to being better behaved CEOs at the tender age of three. After teaching in both public and private schools in Atlanta, she developed a business plan where adults dress up, make reservations and accompany their children to a “magical tea party.” Lessons are taught over a light luncheon (watercress replaced by peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese) finished off with dessert and a visit from the etiquette fairy, who often appears as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Tinkerbelle. Story-time included, parental investment in future refinement comes to about 1 ½ hours total.

“A short period of time can make such a difference,” says Carpin. “A lot of parents tell me they’ve learned something themselves, and nearly a third of our reservations are three generations. Even the grandmothers learn things they didn’t know.”

Carpin, who also teaches etiquette courses at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, says adults recognize their lack of expertise and are hungry to know which way to pass the rolls. Grown-ups skip tea time and go straight to a four-course dining experience, including how to handle the check. “People love it,” she says.

Eleven-year veteran Dongieux also specialized in etiquette for children and teaches a series of classes for the 6-16 set through Dillards department stores. Her courses – offered in Lafayette, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and Biloxi – encompass telephone and table manners, proper sitting and standing, conversation and introductions. A native of Church Point, she grew up with manners as a way of life and a banker father who dined formally with lemon, silver and crystal – and no TV.

“We’re a very hurried society,” she says. “And if you’re going to be nice, it takes time to be thoughtful and considerate. I just wish more people saw a need for etiquette in boys, who tend to need it even more. It’s really an advantage and gives anyone a competitive edge.”

According to both women, growing up in gauche can have economic repercussions and it pays to know which side you bread is buttered on – literally. Entering clients is huge, and adults who are otherwise qualified but lacking in etiquette simply can’t close the deal. “Lots of job candidates are taken out, just to assess their level of etiquette,” says Carpin. “A resume can’t demonstrate your dining skills.”

Dongieux contracts in New Orleans to do seminars covering business and sales etiquette and claims the car industry is her toughest clientele. “It’s challenging, but fun,” she says. “Especially when you have grown men get excited and say ‘ no one ever taught me that.’ ”

All ages learn lunch napkins are smaller and should be unfolded with the left hand and lay flat on the lap. Dinner napkins are placed with the crease facing the stomach. A napkin lightly folded under the left lip of the plate telegraphs to the server one is finished, please take the plate. But a napkin simply laid on the seat sends the message the guest wishes their food to remain. “Napkins are my favorite, I love them, “ says Carpin. “And, as I tell the children, we do not wipe our faces, we blot, blot, blot.”

Each has her pet etiquette peeves. For Dongieux, it’s utensils. She decries the fact that children reared on fast food often reach school age without having used them. “People don’t know how to hold utensils,” she says. “And holding a knife or fork incorrectly is very hard to break.

“Many people like to place the tines and blades on the plate, with the handles on the table, like oars. What’s that about? Once you pick up utensils, they never go back on the table.

For Carpin, young or old, it’s all about the proper handshake. Because people make character judgements within minutes of meeting someone, Carpin doesn’t hesitate to tell bone-crushers to limp fishes to keep trying until they get it right. The overly familiar are gently discouraged. “I’m not about hugging personally, unless I know someone well” says Carpin in her cultured Midwestern accent. “Hugging is very West Coast.”

Although the South has always enjoyed a reputation as the last bastion of etiquette, that old Southern charm may soon be gone with the wind. Once recognized by body language alone, a proud carriage and silently raised eyebrow at a word misspoken, only a few vestiges remain.

“Children are still expected to address a lady by ‘ma’am’ and gentleman as ‘sir’ in many places,” says Carpin, “so the South is still recognized for its charm and hospitality. After living in Seattle, Las Vegas, Atlanta and now Michigan, I say that with confidence.”

Dongieux defends southerners as inarguably well mannered, though currently lacking global sophistication. While Americans are generally behind the curve, etiquette-wise, she says Southerners absolutely refuse to dine Continental style (fork remains in the left, knife in the right) and persist in switching their utensils.

Nor is she keen on being addressed as Miss Katy.

“Miss Sue, Mr. Bob – it sounds subservient when you get to be an adult. Young adults should be formally extended the honor of using your first name. And the use of pet names, like ‘honey’? It’s hopelessly ingrained in Southerners, I’m afraid.”

Carpin plans to test the market here within the next year before marketing a long-term commitment and would like to offer her service seasonally with possible expansion in the future. She finds it personally refreshing that history is repeating itself, and encourages Americans to see etiquette as patriotic, not stuffy.

“America was founded upon values like kindness and consideration for others, and we need to make certain the right people represent,” she says. “We need these values, so we can continue to stand out and stand tall.”

She says she is looking forward to bringing etiquette law and order back to Louisiana and currently awaits a response to her formal business queries, adding: Etissentials would be honored if we were welcomed to your community and they embraced us with open arms.”

But please understand there are to be no more hugs after that, only proper handshakes.


Tips for formal dining from Stacey Carpin

Many Americans have a grasp on basic etiquette, but the advanced stages of the social art elude many.

Some finer points of the craft:

Eat soup by dipping your spoon in the center of the bowl and moving it up and away before consuming it, allowing any stray drops to spill into the bowl. Remember the phrase: “Like a ship out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.”

Dinner rolls should be torn apart, with each piece buttered separately. Hot rolls are an exception, and should be buttered all at once.

The dessert spoon and fork should not be picked up like normal tableware. Instead, grasp each utensil from its resting place simultaneously and slide both down the table to a dining position beside the plate before lifting them.

Women should be seated to the right of men. The reason for this rule is lost to time, but it is a rule nonetheless. Place cards should not be switched, as the host has seated people in a specific order for a reason.

Sugar packets should be placed under the lip of a diner’s plate after use in coffee or tea.

In traditional continental dining, the salad fork is the nearest the plate, to the right of the meat and fish forks respectively. The proper order is alphabetical: fish, meat, salad. American settings with the salad fork to the far left is California-style.

To indicate your impending return, fold your napkin and selt it on your table. Waitstaff will recognize this signal. To indicate the completion of your meal, fold your napkin and place it under the lip of your plate.

To show you will continue a course following a break, cross your knife and fork, tines down, over the plate. To inform servers of the completion of a course, arrange knife and fork in parallel at a diagonal from northeast to southwest.