Towson's International School of Protocol teaches grace under pressure

From which fork to use to how to act at the prom, protocol school teaches social graces.

Carol Campbell Haislip is in the midst of her busy season. The holidays loom, Christmas and then New Year's. The social stakes couldn't be higher. There are family dinners to attend, office parties to navigate, charity balls to waltz through.

But for many, the holidays are a minefield of missteps. Pick up the wrong fork, drink from the wrong glass, put your napkin in your collar instead of on your lap, not to mention talking with your mouth full of food, and you can forget about being invited to tea with the royals.

"I'll be working eight of the next 10 days. I spent three of the last four weekends working," Haislip said recently.

Haislip founded The International School of Protocol in 1996, to teach what used to be called, and perhaps still is, the social graces.

The school is located in an office building at 100 West St. in Towson, although Haislip, director, and co-founder and instructor Cathleen Hanson seem to spend most of their time on the road.

Haislip came from a 20-year career in the corporate world; Hanson, from academia.

"We started teaching etiquette to children, then parents began asking about taking classes," said Haislip, a woman with the calm but firm manner it takes to deal with kids in the post-Henry James/Edith Wharton era.

The International School of Protocol still teaches children's etiquette classes but its offerings have expanded to programs on dining etiquette and a class on social skills, called Mingle Mingle, for teens, college students and adults.

Programs are customized for the clients, from the Y of Central Maryland's at-risk youth and PNC Bank's new hires to the Howard County Public School's high school students.

Haislip has also presented a program at Calvert Hall College High School, a Catholic boys' preparatory school in Towson, on preparing for the prom: how to dress, hold the door, make conversation.

She has held dining etiquette programs at local colleges including Towson, Goucher, Stevenson and University of Baltimore, and for companies like Transamerica. During the school's two-hour-long, three-to-four course meal, food is served and knowledge, or lack of, table manners is tested.

"When I was in the corporate world, we took every candidate to lunch before hiring," Haislip said, during which the candidate's behavior was duly noted.

"You don't want someone who's worried about which fork to pick up," she continued. "Companies have an image they want to convey in the community and they want to make sure their employees represent them."

The school held a Mingle Mingle program at Notre Dame University of Maryland, on North Charles Street in the fall. For two hours, about 30 current students and alumni learned to start and hold a conversation and mingle among groups.

"Most people aren't comfortable walking into a room full of people they don't know," Haislip said.

Kristi Halford is Notre Dame's vice president of the alumnae executive board. "We are always looking for new ideas for our events," said Halford, who has hired the International School to put on both the Mingle Mingle and dining etiquette programs for students and alums.

In the dining etiquette program, Halford said, most of the students and even the alumnae were amazed to discover how much they didn't know. They weren't aware of the proper way to pass food around a table, much less that there was even a wrong way. They didn't know how to lay down their utensils on their plates to indicate they'd finished the meal.

"With friends, you can be relaxed and casual," Halford said. "But with professionals, people you don't know, you want to give the impression that you are a polished professional yourself."

Since 2009, Natalie Belcher, Howard County Public Schools' instructional facilitator for its career programs, has hired the International School to give programs for 12th-graders before they begin their required internships.

Last year, the International School held 12 programs for 25 to 40 students each. Two programs were offered: dining etiquette and workplace etiquette, with tips on proper dress, body language, communication skills, even handshakes. Most seniors took the latter program.

"We want the students to be aware of these things," Belcher said. "We have students with piercings. They asked, 'What if we don't want to take out the piercing? What if we don't want to dress a certain way?' It started a discussion. Carol [Haislip] told them, 'That's your choice but this is what the workplace requires.'"

According to Haislip, the biggest danger during the Christmas season is not the family dinner, as trying as it may be. Instead, it's the office party, which, if you're not careful, can be a deal-breaker.

"You must show up but be on your guard," she said. "Careers have ended over inappropriate behavior."

Haislip lists slips to avoid: too much drinking, insensitive jokes, touching and kissing. She's even got a phrase for appropriate dress for the ladies: "Neckline up, hemline down."

New Year's Eve is less of a problem since you're generally with friends. The major etiquette breach here is showing up with a bottle of wine and expecting the host to open and serve it.

Also, she added, be clear what's expected of you as a guest. Should you bring food? Stay until midnight? Help clean up?

"It's best to find out ahead of time," said Haislip, and start 2015 with a clean, faux pas-less slate.

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