The prim woman at the front of the room is unrelenting:
It's "may I?" not "can I?"
It's "ma'am" and "sir" to your elders -- absolutely no first names, please.
It's "excuse me" and "thank you" and feet on the floor and napkin folded neatly in the lap.
"This stuff is important," she says somberly, and the youngsters try extra hard not to squirm.
Welcome to Etiquette 101, a course Anne Arundel County parents openly adore and children barely tolerate. The six-week course in Davidsonville, designed to ship your kid into shape for the bargain price of $120, is one of hundreds like it around the country.
In a day where congressmen are screaming at each other on national television and the president is in trouble for doing far more than opening doors for ladies, etiquette is becoming big business.
Universities such as Pennsylvania and Purdue offer courses on dinner etiquette through their business schools. There are such things as "national etiquette consultants." A business that operates under the motto "You can dress some techies up, but you can't take them anywhere" has been contracted by such computer-industry giants as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Apple to teach their microchip geniuses how to be socially appropriate. And due out this fall: "Etiquette for Dummies."
In Davidsonville, one of the more upscale ZIP codes dotting the Baltimore-Washington suburban landscape, parents are taking no chances that their kids will turn out to be respectable. Beginning at age 6, children can attend the Stillmeadow School of Etiquette to learn the rules of fine dining, telephone demeanor and party propriety.
Lezlie Carter, who owns a horse farm and equestrian camp, started the etiquette school, which meets at Davidsonville Elementary, last year after several parents picked up their children from riding lessons and commented, "They are always so polite after they've been here."
Carter teaches her young charges some of the most tried-and-true rules of social grace: How to write a thank-you note, open doors, pull out chairs, graciously receive a compliment, tell the difference between polite and inappropriate conversation.
Carter makes her students, ages 6 through 9, come to the front of the room to practice. She makes them perform proper introductions -- always introduce the younger party to the elder party. She makes them introduce themselves -- good eye contact, solid handshakes required. She makes them practice answering the phone -- "Anderson residence, Wes speaking."
"Does everyone know what 'residence' means?" she asks.
Most of the kids stare back blankly.
Every week Carter includes a vocabulary lesson:
Respect: to show consideration or honor.
Compromise: to make a concession or come to an agreement.
Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated.
"You've all heard of the Golden Rule, right?" Carter said.
"It sounds familiar," hesitated Billy Billings, 7.
Courtesy making comeback
If Carter had her way, she'd put an etiquette class in every elementary and high school in Anne Arundel County.
"In today's rude and hectic society, a person possessing truly good manners and an equally refined social attitude is a person that will stand out," reads the brochure for the Stillmeadow School of Etiquette.
Jan Goebel couldn't agree more. She is sending her 6-year-old daughter, Katie, through Carter's course.
"You work all your life to instill these things in your child in the home," Jan Goebel said. "But sometimes it makes all the difference in the world for them to hear it reinforced from someone who isn't their parent."
Even as etiquette seems to go by the wayside these days, Carter insists it is going to make a national comeback. Increasingly, best-selling books are about such topics as political and legal etiquette. Miss Manners has been nationally syndicated for decades, and is as popular as ever. Popular rapper Will Smith has a song in which he urges his son to "hold doors, pull out chairs, go easy on the swears."
At the end of Carter's one-hour etiquette lesson, the kids barrel out of the room, ready to get back to being kids -- and frequently impolite ones at that.
"Will it absolutely change their lives?" asked Carter, who also teaches classes for older children. "Not overnight. Kids will never be perfectly behaved all the time. They're kids. But knowing proper etiquette is crucial. In my day it was standard. Today it has to be a lesson."
Researcher Bobby Schrott contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/19/99