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Manners still matter

Let’s start with the most egregious offenses, shall we? Etiquette aficionados have a few pet peeves both old and new.
Rudeness: It is never acceptable.
Inappropriate dress: Dress for the occasion, please.
Unrestricted cell phoning: Turn it down, turn it off, or take it outside.

The days of fedora-topped men and white-gloved women may be over (though perhaps about to be revived, considering the popularity of TV’s Mad Men), but the demise of etiquette has been greatly exaggerated.

Certainly details have changed with fashion—you can’t tip your hat if you’re not wearing one (a baseball cap doesn’t have the same panache)—but codes of civility remain, fostered by a few who actively reinforce tradition. Call them the keepers of a flickering flame, these guardians of gentility. They are passing on the rules of etiquette to a new, and surprisingly receptive, generation.

The truth is, in our fractious world, there is comfort in adhering to behavioral standards. Joseph Malkiewicz has just hung up his dancing instructor shoes, but he still believes in the quietly civilizing force of etiquette. The former Ken-Ton teacher ran his eponymous dancing school for a generation, having assumed the reins from Janie Lyman Driscoll in 1977. Malkiewicz sees ballroom dancing, with all of its rules of engagement, of a piece with learning appropriate and effective conduct in today’s world.

“Illness at ease can translate into anti-social behavior,” he says, adding that self-confidence, wisdom, and better judgment accrue from dancing skills. “Children are very happy to be guided in the social niceties of asking someone to dance, and learning how to respond in kind.” In a lifetime of teaching, he has learned that children “don’t have an internalized intellectual construct of boundaries … and I do think we operate more thoughtfully if we have a sense of boundaries.” You learn how to dance and have fun, but you also learn empathy and grace, he says, and who could dispute the need for more of that?

Closing the dancing school doors at Central Park United Methodist Church—the 2010 season was his last—does not signify the death of etiquette to the optimistic Malkiewicz. Intensified academics and extracurricular activities, like ski club and other sports commitments, have changed the family schedule. He is, in effect, passing the baton. “Social mores have to be nurtured by mentors—teachers and parents, the caring individuals in children’s lives,” says Malkiewicz. Table manners are a parent’s domain, but dancing school alumni learned other aspects of decorum, like holding chairs and coats, and polite speech, not to mention ballroom bows and curtsies.

Outdated? Not really. “It is a parent’s job to adapt, to anticipate what children need in a new world, and coach them in that,” Malkiewicz maintains. “My mission was aesthetic as well as practical—how nice it is to see well-behaved children … And it is still a small world—we have to get along together.”

Mrs. Joseph (Harriet) Ortolani and Mrs. Paul (Bette) Boeckel are longtime members of the Twentieth Century Club of Buffalo, the second-oldest private women’s club in the U.S. Within the confines of the elegant E. B. Green-designed clubhouse on Delaware Avenue, manners are still a big deal. The changing state of social behavior is considered regrettable, but not a lost cause. And there is definitely a spark of revival on the horizon.

“When I joined this club in 1971, women wore hats,” Mrs. Boeckel recalls. “We still have a receiving line during our Wednesday programs, and white gloves are worn by greeters and members.” A basket of extra gloves is on hand in the vestibule, should a member be without.

Both women lament the changing nature of family life and its impact on the teaching of etiquette. They have grand- and great-grandchildren whose extracurricular activities result in reduced time spent around a family dining room. “It is hard if both parents are working,” muses Mrs. Ortolani. “It is such a nice thing to pass on the rules of etiquette, to foster manners, from one generation to the next. They look up to us.” She insists on cloth napkins at the dinner table, and the writing of thank-you notes, that youngster’s chore so charming to their elders.

The Boeckels host an annual Christmas party where all the young male relatives must wear suitcoats. Knowing what is expected of you is a comfort, though the doing may chafe at times.

Respect and consideration are the two principles of etiquette, according to John J. Bourdage of Bourdage Consulting. A North Tonawanda native, Bourdage is a graduate of the prestigious Ivor Spencer School for Butler Administration and Personal Assistants in London. Basically, he learned social skills at the feet of the master—Spencer was toastmaster and event coordinator for Buckingham Palace.

Working on events for the Queen of England gives you entrée to some rarefied air, but Bourdage has the knack of making the mysterious world of etiquette accessible, understandable, and memorable to the students he teaches in hospitality and other service industry programs. He teaches social skills to business executives and the art of butlering to employees of high-end restaurant and hotel operations. He knows all about manners, can advise on wine and food pairings, and is an expert on gracious living in general.

This is what comes from intensive training in what some might call a lost art, though perhaps the better adjective is “hidden.” After all, in some quarters there has always been a call for good butlers. Bourdage recalls learning to walk with a tray holding a magnum of champagne and two glasses, while another glass filled with wine was balanced on his head. His posture attests to that muscle memory.

So how do college kids, one of his main audiences these days, react to his lessons? “It’s a whole new world to them,” Bourdage says. “They are very receptive and find it refreshing and enlightening. I am teaching them to be socially savvy, with networking skills and business etiquette skills, all with the ethos of respect and consideration. I am trying to impart a manners mind-set ... The fact is that not being sure what to do is a bad feeling.”

Bourdage addresses the area of dress, reminding his students of the importance of identifying specific corporate cultures. The tech world, for example, is less formal than the legal realm. “Clothing should be like social camouflage, allowing you to blend into the environment in which you live and work. Of course, being neat and well-groomed is always first and foremost.

“I give them tools, not rules,” he adds, noting that respect for others is crucial.

“I don’t like people who are overtly rude. I have no time for the divas of the world. Unless you want to go live on an island, you are going to be interacting with other people. It is a sign of maturity to recognize that … Young people have a wonderful attitude now—they are so receptive [to etiquette ideals]—it makes sense to them. I am very optimistic about the future.”


Table manners for techies

The first electronic etiquette incursion may have been the answering machine, a dark-ages development by today’s standards. Then there was e-mail, which most etiquette mavens say is okay (not preferable, mind you) for invitations and thank-yous.

But what about cell phones, and their multiplying multi-tasking capabilities? Palm-size devices are virtual offices these days. Does that mean they are accepted everywhere?

The answer is a qualified no, at least in the world of private clubs and fine-dining establishments. Take your favorite electronic friend to lunch, but be prepared to abide by a few rules. Even though most people decry cell phone use in restaurants, according to a recent Zagat Survey of patrons in major cities, as reported in The New York Times, they still use them at the table. Surrendering to current culture, few places have rules against talking on cell phones, and none regulate texting.

“I think it’s rude,” says Oliver’s Henry Gorino. Still, the reality of cell phones is their ubiquity, so servers are simply instructed to gently enforce a “no noise” rule. “You can’t fight it,” Gorino admits, but you can limit the disruption to other patrons by reminding offenders to turn it off or put it on vibrate, or text in silence, if you must.

At The Twentieth Century Club, cell phones may not be used during meetings. And, according to member Harriet Ortolani, “No one conducts business during lunch.”


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