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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Best behavior

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Don't order ribs at a business lunch. (Save it for when you're with people who will overlook the goo on your face and fingers.)

And don't bellow “Hey, over here!” to summon your server, no matter what the occasion.

Common sense? For most people, probably. But many adults grew up without learning the basics of etiquette. And even if they know the basics, they may feel anxious or awkward about the finer points.

Even in our casual society, we can get plenty uptight over things like forks and napkins, handshakes and introductions. Fortunately, help is available for adults who want to polish their etiquette skills, or learn them for the first time.

Owens Community College, for example, developed such a class after employers suggested that some graduates lacked a certain something.

“Our advisory councils and boards that we deal with outside the college told us that from a technical background and a work ethic perspective they're fine, but that `We'd really like you guys to smooth off the rough edges,'” says Jeff Hardesty, an assistant professor in business and public services who teaches the class, called Business Professionalism.

A required course for business students, it focuses on workplace behavior but overlaps into the arena of social etiquette. It covers topics that may not have been discussed around the family dinner table, Mr. Hardesty explains - such niceties as how to conduct oneself at a corporate outing or business dinner, how to interact with co-workers, complain effectively, make presentations, and dress appropriately.

“They don't appreciate or understand how all of these things piece together to make their image,” Mr. Hardesty says. “You could be great on the `hard side' with the technical skills, but if you don't have the `soft-side' savvy, it could slow down or limit your progression up the social, economic, `promote-able' ladder.”

Casey Wieczorek is majoring in early childhood education at Owens, but she took the Business Professionalism class this past spring because she heard it was helpful.

“I learned so much. There was so much I didn't know, or didn't even think about,” she says. “It wasn't just for business. We learned everyday things.”

Miss Wieczorek says she was taught manners as she was growing up, “but there were little things that have changed.”

Among the things she says she learned: Go for something small and simple at a restaurant, “not something you're going to be ripping off with your hands.” If you're not sure how expensive an item to order, let others go first and follow their lead.

“Without a doubt, I know I can go into a situation a lot more confident,” says Miss Wieczorek - who earned an A in the class.

The University of Toledo offered two special-interest

courses on etiquette in the spring session: “Elegant Ladies” and “Savvy Gents,” taught by Annamarie Zilba. Ms. Zilba, who also teaches classical and ethnic dance and modeling arts, has been coaching children and adults on the social graces for about 30 years.

The two etiquette classes won't be offered this fall by UT because of budgetary concerns and low enrollment. However, Ms. Zilba is hoping to offer them on her own at a site on campus. She covers such topics as wardrobe, cosmetics, table settings, and corporate behavior for women. For men, she discusses dressing for success, corporate protocol, and dining know-how, among other things.

“It's just so needed,” Ms. Zilba says. “It seems like our American culture has gone from being casual to downright sloppy, not only in attitudes but in their physical display.”

Etiquette has an emotional and spiritual connection, she maintains. In her view, saying and doing the right thing is merely the outward expression of an inner elegance - “a dignified richness and grace,” she calls it. “Elegance isn't about money. Elegance is an attitude.”

It's essential on an everyday basis, not just for special occasions, Ms. Zilba adds. “Be sure your presentation is correct, but it's the feeling of the heart that is important.”

She believes that adults who come to her for help with etiquette are looking for two things. One is the updated version of traditional social graces, including how to set a table, go up and down stairs, and dress appropriately. “Then they are also searching for the genuine substance of taking these outward signs and making them real, making them part of who they are,” she continues.

Cheryl Sautter of Sylvania, who took the Elegant Ladies class, says she didn't enroll because of any lack of confidence about etiquette. “Mostly I was intrigued by the title,” she recalls.

“I just thought it would be interesting, and I was curious. Hey, I'm interested in improving my life,” Mrs. Sautter adds.

Patrick O'Rourke, director of business development for Finkbeiner Pettis Strout, Inc., says he took the Savvy Gents class because his work involves calling on clients and attending business-related social functions.

“My mom was very good about teaching us manners, but I wanted to be up-to-date,” he explains. “And there were things I didn't learn about, such as table settings, how to introduce people, or address certain people. I wanted to make certain that I was doing the right thing.”

The number of men in social etiquette classes is increasing, says Cathi Fallon, founder and director of the Etiquette Institute of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton. The firm specializes in children's etiquette, business and social etiquette for adults, corporate etiquette, and the art of fine dining.

“It's probably 60 percent women, 40 percent men in the social etiquette programs. The percentage of men has been increasing,” she adds in a telephone interview from her Columbus headquarters.

One man told her he wanted to polish up because he had started dating a sophisticated woman and didn't want to embarrass her socially. Others, both men and women, seek help because of an upcoming special event where they want to shine - or at least not stumble. Others simply feel a general need to know more about style, presence, dining, grooming, and dressing appropriately.

“Dining is a real big one,” Ms. Fallon continues. “It seems to be a real problem; they have a lack of confidence. And I think shyness is another big factor. Research shows that 88 percent of us have shyness.”

Shyness can express itself through a limp handshake, mumbled self-introduction, averted eyes, and slumped shoulders, thereby tarnishing the crucial first impression one makes.

Ms. Fallon notes that people have to practice the social skills they learn in order to get comfortable with them. “We lay that foundation, so hopefully it becomes a habit.”

She believes that living in a laid-back society makes people unprepared for the formal occasions that come along, especially with age and social, economic, and professional advancement. “We've lost the importance of the art of conversation, of dining, the people skills. What people are finding is, as they get older and their position in life changes or they gain position in their occupation, they find they need those skills to outclass the competition and to get ahead.”

Another area that commonly baffles people is what to wear, says Dianne Taylor, former dean of the London College of Fashion and chairman of the fashion design department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Before moving to Grand Rapids, Ohio, a year ago, she developed and taught a program on personal presentation skills and business etiquette through Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

“We've been going through a period of more casual business dress, so people aren't quite sure anymore what is the most appropriate attire for a given situation,” Ms. Taylor says. Her advice: “It's better to go on the more formal side than to be too casual.”

Bonnie Nagle covers a range of etiquette and image topics both at her John Casablancas Personal Development Center on Southwyck Boulevard and onsite for business clients. If her experience is any guide, it's safe to draw two conclusions: People really care about how they conduct themselves, and they're awfully confused about how to do it.

“Many times I go in for an hour and I end up speaking for two hours, because they have so many questions,” Ms. Nagle says.

One piece of general advice can answer a lot of questions. “Probably one of the most outstanding, attractive features anyone can have is to be a gentleman or be a lady,” she says. “When people are very polite and gracious and courteous and respectful, you do notice them. They do stand out.”



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