Manners still matter
By Lauren Mack
Lyudmila Bloch, a tall, slender woman with cropped red hair, stood before 21 skeptical eighth graders seated at dining tables.
Bloch demonstrated how to butter a piece of bread by breaking off one bite size piece at a time and gently buttering it with a small silver knife. Celine Wilkins looked on in awe. With her mouth wide open, she looked stunned at Bloch’s delicate reenactment of bread etiquette.
“I’ve never had to sit down and learn how to eat,” said Celine, 15.
As Bloch passed the bread basket to Celine, she said nothing.
“I don’t hear ‘thank you.’ I want to start hearing ‘thank you,’” said Bloch.
Bloch is the former etiquette instructor at the famed Plaza Hotel, VIP Program Director, and author of “The Golden Rules of Etiquette at The Plaza.” She now runs Etiquette Outreach, her own school--Manhattan Etiquette School --- where New Yorkers turn to polish their manners.
“Nothing could be more rewarding than a well-behaved child,” said Bloch. “It’s a type of investment.”
Parents tired of ill-mannered and discourteous behavior are increasingly enrolling their children and themselves in charm schools.
“Manners are as relevant as they ever were. They are timeless and universal,” said Cindy Post Senning, great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post, who wrote the first American book on etiquette in 1922.
At the dining skills and character building class for teenagers, Bloch is persistent in patiently showing the fast food-MTV generation how to eat a three-course meal, or at least try. As she held up a wine glass half-filled with water in her right hand, she explained the proper way to hold and sip a beverage.
“Do not extend the pinky. It is not a sign of good manners,” she said as she looked into the glass and took a sip. Her attention was quickly diverted to Artlee Cedano, the most boisterous of the teenage boys, who was chatting with his friend.
“Artlee, are you paying attention?” The 13-year-old was taken aback. As Bloch turned away, he popped a huge wad of bread in his mouth and chewed it with his mouth open. His friends laughed. Betty Wells, a teacher administrator at his school, looked mortified.
The resistant eighth graders from I.S. 229/Roland Patterson, a Bronx middle school, were sent to the 90-minute course by Wells, who was appalled at the students’ disrespectful behavior. Hoping to transform her students, she turned to Bloch last March. While she did not expect things to change overnight, she hoped the class would make an impression. Bloch, who works with private clients, schools and businesses, agreed to teach the students.
“Etiquette is not a privilege just for privileged people. Every child has a right to learn,” said Bloch.
For those who think manners are just about which fork to eat salad with (work from the outside in), which glass to drink from (the one on the right), or how to pass the salt and pepper (place both containers in the same hand and pass them together as a pair), the folks at the Emily Post Institute beg to differ.
“If it were just a set of rules, I would sell you my book,” said Post Senning. Hence the reasoning behind etiquette schools.
From 5-year-olds to grownups, and working class families to celebrities’ children, Bloch teaches more than 2,000 students annually. Her “Basic Dining, Leadership Skills and Character Building” classes cost $75 to $95 per child for a group class to $450 for a private session. The price includes a three-course meal, instruction at a restaurant and class materials.
The concept of etiquette dates back to King Louis XIV, who coined the term “etiquette,” which is French for “ticket.” Emily Post wrote the first American book on manners. Some 17 editions later, her 600-page “Etiquette” remains a best-seller. As the times have changed, the book has been modernized to include sections on “netiquette” and cell phones, and chapters dealing with butlers, maids and chaperones have been removed.
But who gets to decide what the rules are? When cell phones and e-mail became popular, there were no corresponding manners, so the Emily Post Institute took polls and traveled the country. After consulting with the public, the Post great-grandchildren come up with the rules, which were then put in their books.
Sometimes what was considered polite two decades ago is not so anymore. Wearing black to a funeral was a necessity in 1922 but today it’s not. Other rules prevail. Eating bread the same way Bloch showed her students is standard and putting one’s elbows on the table remains a no-no.
“Nothing is more revealing about a person than his or her table manners,” Bloch said.
But parents looking for a quick fix will likely be disappointed.
“You have to be intentional about manners until they are a habit,” said Senning.
Bloch and Senning agree learning good etiquette starts at home. “The best way and the first way to learn about manners is at home from their parents,” Senning said. “Kids will tell you they learn from their parents.”
But classes for children, like Bloch’s, can be a good investment.
“They help kids understand why it’s important. They hear it from someone else. It’s helpful for them to have another adult tell them,” Senning said. “It’s like any skill. You don’t sit down at the piano and start playing. Manners take practice.”
Did the classes work for the Bronx students? “Artlee is still in the growing stage,” said Wells, of his disruptive behavior, which continued through the main course when he stabbed his chicken breast and loudly asked, “Is there ketchup?” Despite this, Wells was satisfied.
“I was afraid they would be unruly,” said Wells.
Even Artlee admitted the class was good.
“I thought it was going to be boring,” said Artlee. “I found some things interesting and enjoyed the information on how to be respectful when dining. The boring part was the etiquette part, saying please and thank you.”
His classmate, Celine said she will not use what she learned every day. “I’ll use it only when necessary—when I’m in public with other people.”