By Kriston Dizon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
Seventeen out of eighteen hands shot up, affirming that all but one of the teens at a two-day etiquette class — held as their precious summer waned – were there under parental order.
The instructor, Deborah King, founder of Final Touch Finishing School, was not surprised. “Seldom does anyone want to take a class on manners,” said King, who teaches mostly in Seattle and Dallas.
In an era when manners and graciousness are vanishing like the polar ice cap, championing etiquette may seem like pushing back a tidal wave with your bare hands. Life has become casual enough that young women feel fine wearing flip-flops to the White House and informal enough that many people don’t R.S.V.P. or send a thank-you note. But others are hungry for a little civility, and etiquette instructors such as King are busier than ever.
Most of the kids said the class wasn’t boring or cheesy, as they’d expected. “We learned how to respect people more and, like, be nice to elders,” said Shazia Shafaat, 13, of Everett. “We don’t want to seem like idiots in front of people.”
Etiquette, King explains, is rules for the game of life. To introduce the concept, King plays tick-tack-toe with Casey Shane, 16, of Bellevue. On her second turn, she cheats, filling in two squares — thus capturing a row and stunning Shane. When she asks whether people could get along without following the rules, the students reply that it would be difficult and cause bickering.
“How many of you love rules?” she asked her charges, whose parents had paid $195 for two eight-hour days of “Basic Training.” Just one hand snaked up, tentatively.
“If we had no rules in school, wouldn’t that be great?” she pressed. Several students agreed, but one said, “No — no one would stay in class.”
Seizing opportunity, King pounced. “It’d be chaos, wouldn’t it? People might steal your lunch or your backpack or beat you up.”
But King is far from a stern-faced mistress. A tidy, trim blonde with well-coiffed hair, ramrod straight posture and a crisp manicure, King wears a constant smile.
“A smile is powerful,” King says. “It says, ‘I’m happy, I’m confident.’ It draws people to you.”
She tells the teens to watch their non-verbal cues: posture, eye contact, body language, dress. “Attitude is everything,” King says. “You are communicating every day — 24 hours a day.”
And, as King likes to say, “No one tells you when you flunk social skills.”
A cell phone rings. King turns to its owner and pronounces it a good learning opportunity — another favorite phrase. She reminds the kids to keep phones off during classes, meetings or when spending time with others.
Upholders of etiquette squarely pin the decline on the wild-child late ’60s and the free-to-be-me ’70s. “We’re in the third generation of people who’ve lost touch with what’s appropriate for behavior,” said King, who believes manners were tossed out like burnt bras and draft cards.
She and others are calling for a return to graciousness.
One of Dawn DeGroot’s favorite sayings is: “If you know better, you do better.” The head of Mrs. DeGroot’s Wallingford Charm School says etiquette isn’t too much to ask. “You know, the rules aren’t so strict,” she said. “They’re quite beautiful — sending a thank-you note, coming with a hostess gift.”
For several years, DeGroot has been teaching etiquette almost exclusively to children.
“I started thinking more about etiquette when I was about to have my own child,” said DeGroot, whose daughter is now 11. “I panicked, because I thought I didn’t like children very much. But then I realized that I don’t like children with bad manners.”
In class, King and DeGroot proffer the carrots of etiquette: jobs, promotions, spouses, and being seen as a role model.
King tells her students: “I promise you this — when you practice good manners, people notice, and in a positive way.”
Sometimes, there are more immediate incentives — particularly, candy.
After showing the group how to introduce themselves, with eye contact and a correct handshake — “web to web, nice and firm,” with two to three pumps that are neither limp nor bone-crushing — King demonstrates the proper way to eat candy. Grasping the wrapper at the bottom to avoid chocolate smudges, she takes smallish bites.
The class also covers how to generate conversation (with the art of the open-ended question); combating the epidemic of filler words — like, you know, um, hey, yeah — etc.; tips for dressing and grooming; phone and e-mail manners; and miscellanea such as not leaning against a wall while standing in line and always allowing adults to enter an elevator first (who knew?).
During their second eight-hour day, the teens are served a three-course lunch, after the boys seat the girls. They learn to avoid talk of politics or religion with people they don’t know; to break off a small portion of bread to butter it; to cut meat with the grain; how to give a toast.
King doles out reminders. “No shovels: We want to hold our utensils like a pencil, not like a shovel,” she says. “No body parts on the table. Good posture. A hand-space away.”
Many, like Stefanie Bigornia, 12, try the continental style of dining for the first time. “My dad needs to take this class,” Stefanie exclaims.
It’s a lot to take in, but, amazingly, the kids seem interested and engaged.
Ryan Kemper, 16, of West Seattle, said, “I’m sure this will help me,” noting that nutritional advice to cut down on his eight cans of soda a day was eye-opening. “I think my friends are going to laugh at me, though, because they’re not manners types.”
King says many adults don’t have a strong grasp of basic etiquette. “The children go home and start correcting their parents and then the parents don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse.”
Shortly after the class, Chanson Kinney, 15, reminded his mother that the salt and pepper are always passed together, while they dined at a Rotary Club of Seattle luncheon. “I saw him eating more slowly instead of gobbling it up,” said his mother, Susie Kinney.
Colleen McQueen of Capitol Hill said her children, Sean, 14, and Madeira, 11, haven’t been completely transformed, but there are changes.
“They actually waited for me to be seated before they began to eat. Usually my hungry son is asking for seconds before I sit down,” she said. And her daughter has proposed several toasts at the table.
“Having somebody else package it all together made it seem easy,” McQueen said.
Etiquette teachers say parents often like to outsource such lessons because it takes the heat off of parents, DeGroot says. “My name is mentioned around many a dinner table as a reminder.”
Recently, at the first of three days of two-hour-long classes, DeGroot seats nine children, ages 7 and 8, in her dining room for their first tea service.
The table is elegantly set with cake trays, dainty china, linens, candles, flowers and cloth napkins. At each place, are two quarters, which DeGroot asks the children to tuck beneath their underarms as a fun way to keep elbows down.
They try valiantly, serving themselves awkwardly with hunched shoulders, but the first quarter drops to the floor in seconds. When she assures them they can keep the change, there’s a cascade of plunking coins, along with giggles and sighs of relief. They nibble on fruit, madeleines, scones and finger sandwiches. Sure, crumbs are everywhere and a chocolaty mouth gets wiped on a shoulder, but the kids are quick learners.
“Did you make these, Mrs. DeGroot?” asked Katie McCloskey of the nibbles. “Oh, they’re very good.”
A fusillade of “May I” breaks out around the table: “May I have some more tea please? May I have the chocolate strawberries please?”
DeGroot, dressed demurely in a black dress and pearls, beams. “Oh, ‘May I’! I love that. It sounds so beautiful.”
After tea, the children walk with Nancy Drew books on their heads, aiming for statuesque posture. The reward is gummy worms.
Asked why it’s important to use please and thank you, Jacob Perrow, 8, said, “Because it usually always works.”
His mother, Jennifer Perrow, hoped Jacob would learn some good table manners and to interrupt less: “I think etiquette is important. It’s sort of a lost art,” she said.
And, if he wondered why he should be polite when many others are not, Perrow said, “We emphasize that this is the way we do it in our family.”
DeGroot covers more basics. “What if an adult walked in the room?” she queries. Noell Witt, 7, answers, “Would you like my seat?”
Correct, DeGroot replies. “There should never be a child sitting in the room when an adult walks in.” And when several parents arrive to collect their children, the young people do indeed stand, after one boy yells, “Look, an adult! An adult!”
Then DeGroot asks if they want to return the next day.A resounding “Yes!” fills the room.
Final Touch Finishing School is online at www.finaltouchschool.com 206-510-5357.