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Shake hands with 21st century manners

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

Some humiliations you never get over.

It was a blistering summer day in Washington, D.C. I and about a dozen other young politicos and policy dweebs were awaiting the arrival of a particularly lumbering elevator at the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

When the lift finally came, I donned my Mannerly Man cape and held the door open for the others. After the last person entered, I crossed the threshold, pleased to see politeness hadn't cost me a spot.

I only got halfway in before the elevator doors slammed shut, however. Fellow passengers stared as I awkwardly fought the doors ajar, stumbled in and wiped a humiliated drip of sweat off my forehead.

Silence. Then one woman leaned over to another, uttering the words I will always remember: "Serves him right for being a male chauvinist," she said.

To this day I fantasize about the withering retort I never delivered. Not to mention the left hook.

Conventional wisdom says Americans are becoming ruder and more selfish. And etiquette, that finicky body of rules which presumes to know the proper way to hold a fork, start a conversation or express condolences, has become big business.

The Protocol School of Washington offers a mail-order program for children ages 4 to 7. Teaching tools include a Catherine the Mannerly Cat hand puppet.

Scan the shelves of the local bookstore and you may find Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career, Miss Manners Rescues Civilization or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette.

Since when, I wonder, is it good manners to call someone an "idiot"?

Like many people, I am conflicted about following the rules. I wave thanks to drivers who pause to let me go first. I laugh when the Three Stooges toss pies at the snooty socialite's face.

So when BayCare Health System invited me last month to attend Business Etiquette 101, a half-day course offered free to its employees, I was intrigued. How would the instructors approach old-fashioned gender roles? Would I learn the proper way to disagree with a superior? Would getting to the class require use of an elevator?

I agree to go and observe. Twenty-eight BayCare employees show up, 21 of them women. Most are mental health professionals.

Co-instructors Caroline Goodrich and Carla Breedlove greet us with firm handshakes and confident smiles, though I sense Breedlove is ill at ease.

Goodrich says she always has been interested in social protocol and created the seminar several years ago. As regional vice president of community affairs at the nonprofit organization, she is frequently called upon to address questions of etiquette anyway, such as when the Micronesian ambassador paid BayCare a visit.

"Good manners reflect our values," she says, "and are a way to continuously improve customer service."

Goodrich's personal bible on the subject is Emily Post's Etiquette, 16th edition, written by Emily's great-granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post. The book is to manners what The Joy of Cooking is to foodstuffs. At 845 pages, it's heavy enough to prop open an elevator door.

After an icebreaker exercise, the instruction begins. It opens with the topic of handshakes.

Goodrich says that how we shake hands sends a powerful nonverbal message about who we are (or at least who we want to pretend we are).

Don't bone-crush, she says, but don't shake limply either. Offer the full hand, not just your fingers. Stand 18 inches away. Shake once, twice and let go, 3 seconds in all. In a professional setting, let the higher-ranking person extend her hand first.

Be sure to hold your drink in your left hand, she says, so as to leave the right one dry and available. If someone should offer his left hand, shake it anyway. Mannerly people put others at ease, even when they feel uncomfortable themselves.

It all seems a bit neurotic to me. Wasn't the original purpose of the handshake, as one BayCare employee jokingly pointed out, to show that neither party held a skull-crushing rock in his hand?

But there's more to making a good impression than shaking well, Breedlove says. You must smile, make eye contact and deliver a brief self-introduction you've memorized. When introducing two strangers to each other, always say the name of the "most important" person first. (Harumph.)

And don't keep 100 percent eye contact with a person, Breedlove says; it's creepy. Don't fall below around 70 percent, either; it's rude.

To practice these skills, Breedlove invites us into an adjacent room, where waiters are serving appetizers and nonalcoholic cocktails. A "minglephobe," I conveniently excuse myself to call my office and use the men's room. Breedlove disappears too. Later she admits she was cowering in a nearby office.

"I know it in here," she says, pointing to her brain.

Meanwhile, a classmate confides to me her own secret for overcoming social phobia: Zoloft, an antidepressant.

Next we go to yet another room, where a full meal awaits us. It is a working lunch: We are to learn the do's and don'ts of table manners.

Do eat your cherry tomato whole, we're told. Don't switch your fork from left hand to right after cutting. Do spit the olive pit into your hand and place it on your plate. Don't slather butter on a whole slice of bread; tear off and butter each bite one at a time. Made a messy stain on the tablecloth? Conceal it with a coffee saucer.

As lunch draws to an end, I can't help but feel we've given short shrift to more challenging questions. Is it polite to hold an elevator door for others, or merely patronizing? In a multicultural society, can there really be just one correct way to do things? Is it possible to be nice without being taken for a sucker?

It might help if etiquette industry types like Martha Stewart focused less on absurdly scripted behavior and more on the goal of encouraging civility.

Despite their focus on the mind-numbing details of protocol, Goodrich and Breedlove seem to get it.

One indication is the framed Emily Post quote they display at class. "Manners are a sensitive awareness of others," it says. "If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

The opposite, Goodrich says, is also true.

"You can follow etiquette and still be a clod."

-- Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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