Etiquette for the Modern World

Article from Seattle’s Child 

Five girls enter Deborah King’s beautifully appointed Des Moines home with eager smiles. Two boys come in quietly and shake hands with the blonde lady, who glides toward them with a straight back and warm smile.
“Spencer won’t get out of the car,” one of them yells. Someone goes back for him, and he shuffles in, looking at the floor.

The eight children – a group of cousins, ages 6-15 – take off their shoes and sit on facing sofas in the elegant living room. Classical music plays softly in the background.

They’re here for one of King’s Final Touch Finishing School classes on etiquette, a skill one of their mothers calls “a lost art.” Today and tomorrow they’ll practice introductions, handshakes, posture, grooming and telephone use. The third day will be a a three-course luncheon to teach dining etiquette.

“Do you know why big burly football players love this class?” King asks the reluctant boys. “To get dates and keep getting dates,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.

She begins by playing tic-tac-toe. She takes two turns in a row to make her line of O’s. They all remonstrate indignantly. “Do you want to play with someone who cheats?”She asks. None of them do. She makes an analogy between bad manners and cheating. “Etiquette is rules to play the game of life,” she tells them.

In King’s view, etiquette and manners are not prissy concepts belonging to a distant past. She summarizes them as “an attitude based on kindness and respect: toward ourselves, toward others and toward property.” Every action can be judged on whether it’s kind and respectful, even if we don’t know the rules of another person’s culture.

King uses a ping pong ball to illustrate the give-and-take conversation, having the children toss it back and forth with each sentence. For each concept, there’s practice, accompanied by giggles. Small candy bars are eaten in two or three bites, with the wrapper folded down around the bottom of the bar. Water is sipped while holding the bottom if the glass, looking into the cup, not over the top. Posture, demonstrated by a small skeleton, is practiced against the wall.

King never assumes that her students know the basics, noting that today’s children are “the third generation who have lost touch with what’s appropriate.”

So she goes over washing thoroughly to remove dead skin cells, using deodorant and getting rid of boogers in private. The teenage girls, especially, are startled to learn that first impressions are formed in the fist three to five seconds – and they’re based 55 percent on appearance, 38 percent on body language and only 7 percent on the words we speak. “Even if you don’t say anything, your nonverbal language screams,”she says.

At the end of the first day’s session, thirteen year old Zack waits until all the girls have left before he leaves. “Ladies first,” he repeats. 8-yearold Elijah illustrates that boys taught manners will still be boys. “Dummies first,” he retorts.

In fact, more boys than girls take King’s Young Ladies and Gentleman classes at local community centers.

“I began 14 years ago in Kent, Auburn and Federal Way with a Young Ladies Class,” King says. “Very soon, parents said, ‘We want our boys to hear this.'” Adult Social Savvy classes soon follow. She now offers seminars around the country and will be opening a second office in Dallas.

“I started because I was ignorant,” King says. She was brought up on welfare, the eldest of four girls, in Federal Way. “I had not a clue about anything. I saw that other girls had more skills and more friends, and I wanted to know what they did.” She learned runway techniques and image enhancement at modeling school. But when she had children, she found nothing to reinforce the manners she was trying to teach them at home.

Piecing together information from parenting and etiquette books and classes at the Protocol School in Washington D.C., she created her own curriculum. “I don’t know how to separate appearance and etiquette; I teach them together. No one tells you that other children don’t like you or you didn’t get the job because you flunked social skills.”

“What is a finishing school in our day?” she asks. “It’s taking social skills to the real world: to the sixth grader who wants friends at recess, to the teen with self-esteem issues, to the seven-year old who’s been invited to dinner and wants to be invited back”