Easter Sunday may seem like an odd day to publish a blog on etiquette and personal marketing, yet in some ways, it is perfectly appropriate. Today many will hide eggs and watch children or grandchildren pull giant chocolate bunnies from their baskets. Many will go to church or brunch or lunch, attend some form of community or family celebration, and people of all ages and stages will intermingle, dine together, and connect. And believe it or not, but how we manage our bread and butter tells a story.
“Because WHATEVER doesn’t work here anymore…” I stand there, clicker in my hand, waving the laser pointer to my opening slide. It is day two of my “Practical Tips on Marketing Yourself” workshop. My audience stares at me blankly, fourteen-year-old girls and boys dressed in spirit gear and jeans, seated by self-appointed personality classification (introvert, extravert, ambivert) wondering how any of this is relevant.
I’m talking about marketing and product differentiation, only this time the product isn’t a school or business; it is us. And them—sixteen adolescents sitting at tables in a Chemistry lab. A formal place setting takes the place of the Bunsen burner or whatever explosive device they are used to seeing there, yet the formal place setting is explosive in its own way. Too many forks and knives to count. Bread plate. Four drink glasses. Pretty dang scary.
I float an explosive idea to complement the place setting: outside of their little, momentary utopia where they are each super special and outstanding, there is a great, big, competitive world where there are a lot of people who will have something super special and outstanding about them too.
“I hesitate to tell you this as to not burst your 8th grade, capstone year bubble,” I said, “but here’s the truth—when you leave here and move on to high school and then college and then work, I’m pretty sure there will always be someone smarter, richer, prettier, more athletic, more creative, naturally or earnestly just more. This is why “WHATEVER doesn’t work here anymore,” (Ellen Lubin-Sherman).
It simply is not enough to blow things off, to lack initiative or great manners, a great handshake, or great conversational skills. Rather, in today’s competitive world, each of us needs to find something that differentiates us in the interpersonal marketplace. This is what my “Etiquette Class” is all about.
Etiquette Class started years ago at The Lexington School, pre-me, but I’ve taught it confidently for over a decade. I’ve taught it outside of TLS, too, in a slightly different format for Dress for Success Lexington. The workshop provides practical tips for personal marketing and includes the following topics:
• Responding to Invitations • Coming to Table • Table Settings • The Napkin • Managing Utensils • Managing Glassware • Bread, Soup • Starting and Finishing • Thank You Notes • Handshakes • Eye Contact • The Essentials of Fabulous • Making Meaningful Introductions • The Art of Conversation
This year, as I began my presentation and asked the students questions, for the first time ever, I found myself questioning some of the very traditions and rituals I held as truth for so long, wondering if they still hold up in our current society. Am I teaching something obsolete? Am I out of touch somehow, too old, a dying breed? Are these time-honored or timed-out?
As early as topic number two, “Coming to Table,” I began to stutter. “So, if a girl/woman needs to get up during the meal to go to the powder…um…to take a power call, what should/can the boys/men or others do?” I looked at the group hard, deep into their eyes as I spoke and waited for a glimpse of annoyance, resistance, any sign that I should skip the slide. The boy at the front left table shouted out, “We all stand up!” Some of the girls in the room looked surprised and apprehensive, but no one shot hate daggers towards him or me. A few kids laughed and nodded. I said, “Right answer.”
I imagined the conversations at the dinner table that night, “Mom, did you know that boys HAVE to pull out girls’ chairs? Mrs. Pride SAID!” Still defensive, I continued: “Look, there’s something you all need to know about me before we go any further with this. I am an empowered female. I have my own business. I believe in equal pay for an equal job regardless of gender. I open doors for people as often as I can. Literally open doors. I stand up when someone I don’t know approaches my table for the first time. But guess what? I really like it when my husband pulls my chair out for me. I think it’s courteous. So sue me, but I like it.” Deadpan fourteen-year-old facial expressions, self-doubt invaded my entire body.
First class over, it was time for some research. I couldn’t bear another class feeling so insecure about my message. I put on my marketing hat and took to the hallways. I spoke to a variety of age and stage adults and built a mobile focus group as fast as I could, searching for a data-based decision on whether or not to go forward with the “Coming to Table” concept.
What should I do? Teach it or not teach it? I asked.
Participant #1: “Hmmm…I’m not sure. Maybe you explain it can be situational. As in you can do it sometimes for formal occasions but you don’t have to do it all the time.”
Participant #2: “If I saw someone pull the chair out for my daughter, I would think that was nice, that clearly someone taught him how to do that, and he has nice manners. I would like it.”
Participant #3: “I can see why you are feeling weird about it. I mean, where does it come from? Is it patriarchal?”
Participant #4: “Utterly ridiculous—of course you should teach it.”
That’s as far as I got before the next class, not a great sample. I awkwardly taught it again, and the kids got a kick out of practicing the art of pulling out a chair. No fist fights so far.
The school day over, I took some time for a little more research and found the tradition of pulling out a woman’s chair has nothing to do with a perceived inability to seat ourselves nor the mandated action of a patriarchal norm. In fact, it is the result of early fashion logistics when dresses had hoops and bustles, and assistance was necessary for opening doors and getting seated at a table. Men opened doors because the women couldn’t reach the knobs and they pulled out chairs to help manage the giant circumstances surrounding a woman’s corset.
Today, we have extremely different standards for attire (think yoga pants), but the tradition remains a standard and symbol of good manners. Decidedly, I’m standing behind it (in hopes that maybe someone will pull out my chair).
In the rest of the classes, I relaxed and told them that rules of etiquette apply to everyone regardless of age or gender. Being kind, pulling out chairs, opening up doors…these are actions that show courtesy and respect. They may come from long ago traditions, but they are ours to maintain and make our own, and they DO differentiate us.
One of the most persuasive (and sanctioned) stories I know is about one of the teachers at the school, a brilliant man who was born into eastern Kentucky, Appalachian poverty. At 12 years old, he won a scholarship for gifted and talented middle school boys to board at Boys Ranch in Lexington and attend Fayette County schools. When he arrived, he said his first stop was the library where he checked out and read an entire book on etiquette. He taught himself how to eat, drink, dress, and talk, turning the word “worter” into “water.” At the end of his time at Boys Ranch, he was admitted with a scholarship to an elite New England boarding school, where he attended and was known as the southern gentleman from Kentucky. His education and initiative are what ultimately broke his personal poverty cycle, but he contends today that it is his knowledge of etiquette that elevated his trajectory even further.
At the end of this story, my I-gen students nodded and asked for more. This group gets it without much persuasion, hence the accepting eyes rather than daggers of disdain I expected. Those deadpan facial expressions? Ends up they were actually listening, very keen on learning more. Ten years ago, I had to convince my students of best practices in cutlery and conversation. Today, the chip was on my own shoulders.
Remember how plugged in they are. Social media is their window to the world. Their perceptions are perfected through filters and editing software, and the competition is exacerbated by the number of hashtags and followers. This generation understands personal marketing and branding better than any of us who generationally precede them, and trust me, they are looking for an angle. It probably doesn’t help that we parents reference the 2008 recession every other day, so no wonder they are a little bit anxious. They want to make it all work. You can see it in their eyes, their eagerness to share…their willingness to pull out another’s chair.
Fast forward through our two-day workshop and find us at the 8th grade (Etiquette) Dinner. It is April, cloudy and cool outside, but the jonquils and bluebells wave hello as girls in spring outfits and boys in coats and ties arrive for the party. They mingle in vibrant conversation and eventually come to the table where the boys assist the girls with their chairs. Napkins in laps, they proceed through dinner with vitality and grace. They brought their personalities with them (slide #23).
At the end of the night, they stood and toasted their parents, teachers, and classmates. They said things like, “This year has been the most amazing year of my life” and “If it weren’t for the people in this room, I’d be a completely different person.” It is impossible to describe how polite, brave, and articulate these young people are. They seem years older, more experienced, SO different than your typical fourteen-year-old “kid.”
Just prior to the dinner, one of the boys approached me. He wore khaki, Bermuda-length shorts, white button-down, a blue blazer, and a bow tie. He looked adorable, but he was nervous. “Mrs. Pride, is it bad that I’m wearing shorts? My long pants were dirty. This was all I had.” I glanced up and saw a group of boys listening and I looked around and saw what I already knew was the case—there was a little bit of everything, representative of this generation and our society at large.
“You have nothing to worry about,” I said. “Look around you. No one here looks exactly the same. Your shorts are your personal flair. You are perfectly suitable, stylish, fabulous!” A little bit different and a whole lot fabulous. Great manners, great essentials, and an understanding of why it matters: “Because WHATEVER doesn’t work here anymore,” and they know it.