Tuesday nights have been rough around my house.
My daughter Lucy, 12, is in the middle of an eight-week dance and etiquette training course for middle schoolers that's commonly known as "cotillion." She says she hates cotillion and protests mightily. Good manners are always a good idea, I told her. Think of college interviews and job interviews. Heck, think of walking into a high school dance with confidence, because you got the moves.
And she said, "Yes, of course, Mother, I know you're right." Heck no, she didn't say that. But I'm playing the long game. I bet years from now Lucy will appreciate the wisdom of cotillion. In the meantime, I figure we all could stand to brush up on our eqtiquette skills, so I've compiled this refresher. After all, good manners are always a good idea in business and professional circles, too.
"We're learning conversation etiquette. How do you start conversations? How do you continue conversations? How do you focus on other people and not yourself?," said Linda Booth, who for more than 20 years has taught Promenade of Charlotte classes for hundreds of middle and high schoolers. She teaches throughout the community, too, including interview skills for third-year residents at Atrium Health. "We've sort of forgotten how to talk with people."
1. Know the components of a good handshake.
This is one of the first things Lucy and her pals learned. The bottom of your thumb should meet the bottom of the other person's thumb, Booth says. No wimpy fingertip handshakes. Three pumps of the wrist should do it. If the handshake isn't the most basic life skill, I don't know what is.
2. Look people in the eye -- or near the eye.
When shaking someone's hand or talking with them, look them in the eye with your body -- meaning your shoulders -- pointed directly at them so that you appear engaged. If looking directly in the eyes is hard to do, that's OK; look between their eyes. This is what Booth calls the "safety zone." Where has that term been my entire life? While I think I'm good at looking people in the eye, there definitely have been times when it's been hard or I haven't wanted to. Some managers come to mind. I wish I'd known about the safety zone then.
3. Know how to start and end conversations.
What are two sure-fire ways to start conversations, Booth asks the kids at the end of a recent session. This was right after the dance lesson, which included the circle dance to Earth, Wind and Fire's "September," one of Booth's favorites. Hands shoot up. The answer: Give a compliment or ask a question. (Not a personal question like "What's your salary?," as one boy later offers.)
I have to give my girl props here. She's a natural at this one. When we're out and about she's generous with the compliments, telling someone in the check-out line or at church that she likes their sweater or shoes. Smooth move, Lucy.
To end a conversation, say it was a pleasure and mention something that you talked about, like you hope that person enjoys the book they are reading or their upcoming vacation. Lucy could stand to work on this. Her "later" isn't going to cut it.
4. Your nametag goes on your right side.
On a recent Tuesday evening, I witnessed Lucy's horror as I served as a parent chaperone for the one-hour session. Fellow parents and I made sure the kids put on their nametags, which go on the right side, by the way. Honestly, I never knew that. We also made sure they checked their cell phones at the door and spit out their gum.
Then we formed a receiving line and shook dozens of hands and said, "Hello, Charlie" and "Nice to see you, Claire." That receiving line was repeated at the end. "Good evening, Gwenny." "Have a nice night, John Thomas." The next day I could still recall the kiddo with the best handshake (she's going to go far, I thought) and the one with the weakest. And that's why I enrolled Lucy in cotillion. She's learning more than good manners. She's learning life skills.
And guess what, she doesn't hate it. She complains, because it's her job as a middle schooler. But every now and again she mentions she'll go back in seventh grade -- if her pals Margaret and Anna go, too.