Teaching Proper Etiquette
It’s a week after the baby shower for my first child and I am writing thank-you notes. When I was growing up, my parents made my brother and me write thank-you notes. But will my little one write them? Or will they become a thing of the past?
I set out to find out how our current world — heavily influenced by the digital revolution — has altered the art of the thank-you note and other matters of etiquette.
Does Etiquette Matter?
The lack of decorum demonstrated in the last political election might make it hard to imagine whether etiquette has a place in 2017. It does, says Abigail George, founder of The George School of Protocol in Raleigh.
“With a tough political year not very far behind us, our children have seen all manner of terrible behavior through media — and perhaps in person as well,” she says. “It is crucial that we make it a point to pivot dramatically in 2017; these behaviors brought on by heightened emotions should not become the new norm for how we treat one another.”
Charlotte-based etiquette coach Aimee Symington realized something about the top-level corporate professionals with whom she interacted when she tried to change the culture in a Fortune 500 company: “They had really good social skills. When you look at statistics, they say that 80 percent of a person’s professional success is based on their social skills,” she says.
Even though we know having good social skills leads to success, Symington says as parents and as a society, we may not be doing the best job of teaching those skills.
Teaching Proper Etiquette: Start Early
So how do you help children learn etiquette? Symington suggests starting early.
“You can’t just start with a 10-year-old child,” she says. She recommends encouraging young children to become comfortable speaking for themselves, adding that parents should avoid chiming in for them with their names and ages.
George recommends that parents focus on three aspects of etiquette for younger children: introductions, dining and writing thank-you notes. She says children should also know how to say “hello,” make eye contact and give a firm handshake. Holiday gatherings and birthday parties are good events at which to practice these skills.
Even though she claims the handwritten thank-you note is not a thing of the past, George acknowledges there are other ways to exhibit gratitude.
“Public praise through social media, a thank-you video (my personal favorite), or an email including a message and picture of how you’re using the gift are acceptable and fun options,” George says.
She suggests prioritizing promptness and quality content when it comes to writing thank-you notes.
“Send your thank-you message as soon as possible and be sure to put a lot of thought into it,” she says. “People like to know how you’re enjoying the gift, so tell them. Be sure to say something unrelated to the gift as well, such as, ‘I can’t wait to see you over Thanksgiving!”
Etiquette and the Digital Revolution
George and Symington agree the digital revolution has impacted how we help children and teenagers consider matters of etiquette. Citing the abundance of cyberbullying occurring in our society, George recommends we help our children understand how to engage safely in digital spaces. She advises that children not share anything online they would not say in person. She also says children need to understand that anyone can potentially see a digital post, and a careless post can come back to hurt them or people they know later on.
Symington offers a digital component in the teen etiquette classes. She believes teenagers should be made aware of how to write proper emails and of the long-lasting effects of their social media posts. She emphasizes the importance of teenagers knowing when to be engaged in digital or face-to-face conversations.
Teenagers need to know “when it’s appropriate to be on your cellphone and when it’s not,” she says. As an example, Symington says when a teen receives a text or phone call while they’re having a conversation with someone, “it’s not okay to respond to the text or answer the call, because it shows disrespect for the person they’re with. Or if they’re in a place where they shouldn’t be texting or on their phone, they need to know that,” she says.
Some Things Never Change
Symington is quick to point out that some matters of etiquette do not evolve quickly. “Some things really don’t change at all,” she says.
Table manners, for example, change very little. “I teach the same table manners to children as I do to CEOs because there is a one, specific, proper way to do it,” she says, adding that table etiquette isn’t just for “fancy restaurants. … It’s for everyday use.”
Maybe my little one will send digital, instead of handwritten, thank-you notes. But, based on these etiquette experts’ opinions, expressing gratitude and good manners does not seem to be going out of style anytime soon.
Kathryn Caprino is a freelance writer in Gainesville, Florida.
Etiquette Resources for Parents
Junior League of Raleigh cotillion classes (these classes are offered in Cary and Chapel Hill, too)
“Emily Post’s Etiquette” by Peggy Post (William Morrow, $16.61 (yes, on Amazon only)
“Manners: The Secrets to Grace, Confidence, and Being Your Best” by Nancy Holyoke and Julia Bereciartu (American Girl, $17.42)