Chivalry and Modern Manners
Navigating etiquette guidelines in a progressive society
Hugh and Lily, seventh-grade students at Githens Middle School in Durham, show how to sit in a graceful and polite way at a party or other social event.
Photos courtesy of Morton Photography
It is hard to imagine a cuter scene than the annual Valentine’s Day Tea at St. David’s School in Raleigh. Dressed in coats and ties, second-grade boys escort second-grade girls — all in red party dresses — to their tables. The boys pull out chairs for their partners and gallantly pass cookies. Pinkies are not necessarily extended, but napkins are in laps. Emily Post would approve.
For the most part, parents — who are invited to the event as observers — approve, too. However, second-grade teacher Abby Brown says last year was the first time several parents expressed doubts. Is teaching traditional etiquette, with its age-old gender differentiation, appropriate in an age proud of its strong, independent girls and women? Here are four arguments to consider.
The Kindness Argument
Chivalry, Brown says, is all about kindness, respect and “being aware of the people around you.”
“Should a boy hold a door for a girl?” she asks. “Absolutely. And not just for a girl. It’s important to form habits of respect and awareness for everyone around you.”
Teachers at St. David’s School place a huge emphasis on character development and showing kindness and respect to teachers, parents and peers.
“We focus on this in everything we do, and the traditional manners we teach at our Valentine’s Tea are central to that message,” Brown says.
Margaret Vermillion, co-director for Durham Junior Cotillion, agrees that chivalry is simply a matter of learning to adjust your behavior to make other people feel comfortable.
“It feels good when someone holds the door open for you,” she says. “You feel respected. And it feels bad if you’re sitting across from someone chewing with their mouth open or slurping their soup.”
Brown incorporates the lessons from the Valentine’s Day Tea at St. David’s School into her classroom every day. Once a month, the “golden tray” is given to the class that has shown the best manners and etiquette in the lunchroom. Brown gives out a “golden spoon” each day to the child who has gone above and beyond to show respect and kindness to another student.
Donna Foard Knorr, who was a speech pathologist in Cabarrus County schools for 40 years, opened The Piedmont School of Etiquette because she sees manners as “life skills” that many children with whom she worked were lacking.
“Children want to know the rules,” she says. “They want to be polite and use good manners.”
Knorr says she is pleased at how quickly her students pick up the nuances of social interaction and how eager they are “to show the world they know how to act.”
Brown is equally pleased with the results at St. David’s School. “I see it all the time in the halls: Middle schoolers holding the door open for a teacher, male or female; and students addressing me and other adults with respect. “
The Self-Confidence Argument
“Chivalry sets you apart,” says Vermillion, whose popular cotillion classes for fifth- through eighth-graders always attract a crowd. “When you to know how to handle yourself in a variety of social situations, you’re going to exude self-confidence.”
Vermillion believes everything taught at cotillion — from table settings to handshakes to writing thank-you notes to dancing — gives her students the confidence to throw themselves into what otherwise might be challenging social situations.
“You don’t need to know what a shrimp fork is — just know the basics, so that at a nice dinner you can immediately sit down and think, ‘OK, Ms. Vermillion told me to always have my bread plate on the left.’ It just gives you confidence to focus on the people around you rather than on yourself.”
These lessons are not only still relevant, Vermillion insists, but vital at a time when social interaction is minimal among teens. She believes cotillion training provides the perfect phone-free, rule-protected venue for practice.
“Adult conversation is particularly difficult for this generation because their in-person exposure is so limited,” she says.
And the ballroom dancing? Important, too, Vermillion says, for helping preteens feel comfortable with the opposite sex.
“The first time those boys have to escort a girl into the room, they are so embarrassed. But that lasts about five minutes and then the awkwardness dissipates and they’re fine,” she says.
Vermillion does not believe that leading a girl into the room or pulling out her chair is chauvinistic. Indeed, she finds the opposite to be true.
“Clearly, a girl is capable of doing these things herself,” she says. “It is simply a sign of the boy’s admiration and respect. He is showing the girl he holds her in high esteem.”
Knorr is a stickler for gendered manners and reminds her students that a boy should not only hold the door open for a girl, but also offer his arm to a girl going up or down steps, that he should be the one to ask a girl on a date, and that he should then pay for a dinner or movie out.
Vermillion believes that arming a child with traditional manners will give him or her the confidence and social awareness to determine when and where to apply the rules.
The Success Argument
“Etiquette is necessary for success,” says Sarah Ho, senior assistant director for the Park Scholarships program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
This prestigious, full scholarship regularly attracts more than 2,200 applicants for 35-40 spots. The chosen students have excellent academic records, are deeply involved in their community, are leaders in student organizations and show the potential to make meaningful change in society.
“These students will be judged not just on their achievements, but on how they conduct themselves, and how they interact with peers and professionals,” Ho says. One of the first requirements for this elite group of students is an etiquette class.
The Park Scholarship program added manners training to the curriculum several years ago because students asked for it. As finalists for the scholarship, they are invited to a dinner with the program’s board members and the admissions committee, and many students want to learn proper etiquette for the event.
“It’s a big formal dinner,” explains Ho. “They are still in high school and they all feel nervous about looking professional and acting appropriately at the table. Once they realize this is just the first of many similar events, they all want the skills so they can focus on impressing, rather than on being nervous about making a mistake.”
Interestingly, Ho notes, among these amazingly impressive students, very few come in with a strong background in etiquette.
“Occasionally, we have someone who did cotillion and that person is always at an advantage,” she says.
Ho says the etiquette training they get is basic, starting with a firm handshake and eye contact, practice at a formal dinner, topics of conversation to avoid and what to do if something embarrassing happens.
Because there are now more women than men in the program, Ho points out that the gender imbalance makes the women less likely to expect chivalrous behavior. Nonetheless, she says there are definitely gendered aspects to the training, such as holding doors open and pulling chairs out. Chivalry and etiquette may have morphed to meet the modern world, she says, but “it would be a surprise if we ever reach a day when etiquette doesn’t matter.”
The important lesson for the Park Scholars, just as it is for the second-graders at St. David’s School and middle school students in cotillion, is that being kind leads to success.
This training works for the Park Scholars. Ho says the students go on to ace professional conferences and interviews for international fellowships and internships, and eventually they get hired for top jobs.
“Anticipating someone else’s needs is professional,” Ho says. “It can be something big, or it can be something as small as opening a door.”
The Silicon Valley Argument
Durham Junior Cotillion is thriving, with more than 50 students in the fifth-grade class alone, and other cotillion programs offered throughout the Triangle and the Charlotte area are doing just as well.
But is embracing traditional manners a “Southern thing”? Not according to Janine Gerzanics, director of Junior Manners Company in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. She says cotillion classes in California were on the wane 10 years ago, but with the tech boom and population explosion around San Francisco, things have changed. Parents, she says, are focused on their children’s education and success. “All the kids have outstanding academics and fantastic extracurriculars, so parents look to cotillion to give their children a competitive edge in social interaction,” she says, adding that at Junior Manners Company, she and her staff teach traditional manners updated with “new manners for the 21st century.”
“In our incredibly diverse society, it is even more applicable to learn how to act appropriately, but it has to be made relevant,” Gerzanics says. “We’re not going to teach you to curl your pinkie as you drink your tea. We teach lessons that are applicable for all events and all times.”
She views cell phones as one of the main challenges for this generation of families.
“It is our job to move them out of ‘me, me, me,’ and to think about the people around them. They are not selfish, per se, they just have no idea how egocentric social media has made them.”
While Junior Manners Company tries to teach students to decrease their dependence on smartphones, the classes do incorporate phone and social media etiquette, as well.
“We recognize the ubiquity of cell phones and try to enforce the idea that manners are important online as well as off,” Gerzanics says.
Like Durham Junior Cotillion, the classes at Junior Manners Company teach traditional chivalry and ballroom dancing. And, like Vermillion, Gerzanics believes chivalry shows respect, not superiority.
“It is very possible that boys will hold open a door for a woman who does not appreciate the gesture, but he should come away from the situation knowing he did the right thing” she says.
Gerzanics often closes her classes by quoting from the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. “The principal says that you often have to decide whether to be kind or to be right. But that if you are kind, then you are always right,” she says.
It would be hard to find a parent who would disagree with that.
Etiquette Must-do’s and Maybes
1. Greet someone with a short, firm handshake, address the person by name and be sure to look the person in the eye.
2. When it comes to table manners, know basic place-setting rules (e.g., outside-in with utensils). Make it pleasant for everyone (e.g., never chew with your mouth open). Participate in conversation.
3. Say “please” and “thank you.”
4. Send thank-you notes — preferably handwritten, though an email (not a text) will do in a pinch.
5. Hold the door open for someone older to show respect, and for anyone who looks like he or she could use help.
6. Put smartphones away during conversations, while sitting at a table for a meal and while in a car.
7. Be aware of the people around you. If someone’s grocery bag breaks, help pick up the groceries. Offer your seat in a waiting room or on the bus to an elderly person — or to anyone who looks like he or she needs it more than you do.
8. If you invite someone on a date, plan to pay for it.
1. A boy should hold the door open for a girl.
2. A boy should be the one to ask a girl on a date.
3. A boy should always pay for a date.
4. A boy should go out of his way to introduce himself to his date’s parents.
5. A boy should share his umbrella and offer his coat to his date if she looks cold.
6. A boy should let a girl order first at a restaurant.
“Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th Edition: Manners for Today” by Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning
“Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers” by Walter Hoving
“American Girl: A Smart Girl’s Guide: Manners: The Secrets to Grace, Confidence, and Being Your Best” by Nancy Holyoke
“Teenagers Tips for Success: Create a Future, Achieve Your Dreams and Become Very Successful” by James Malinchak
National League of Junior Cotillions Cary (Prestonwood Country Club)
Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer in Durham.