Nicole Tourtelot, 5, gave her mother, Susan, a lesson in good manners the other day. The Tourtelot family was having a simple dinner at home when Susan dropped her fork. Nicole knew exactly how to handle the situation. "You know, Mom," she advised, "if you drop your fork you don't pick it up. You wait for the waiter to pick it up and bring you a new one."
Nicole's sophistication, albeit slightly misplaced, wasn't learned at kindergarten. She's one of an increasing number of Southern California children, some as young as 3, who are attending etiquette classes.
Courses in manners have been available to youngsters on the East Coast for many years, but in laid-back Southern California interest in the subject is growing anew after a decade or so characterized by etiquette teacher Anne Kibler as "that ugly time when people didn't care so much about manners."
The California interest may be indicative of a national trend. Even Disney has gotten into the act with "Disney's Elegant Book of Manners," featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other celebrated characters giving advice in verse on how to behave.
Girls in party dresses and hair ribbons, boys in jackets or sweaters and ties, the members of Alyse Best's Very Special Protocol class arrive at the Regency Club in Westwood and file into the wood-paneled library. Obviously on good behavior, they sit still and attentive, letting only an occasional giggle escape, as Best, in a pale pink suit and pearls, begins the class.
A role-play taking place in a restaurant is soon in progress. "Now, Alexandra, you see some friends across the room and you want to say hello, so can you go over to their table?" Best asks. "Bill, there's a woman at your table. Now what do you do?" Bill dutifully stands up. "When you see friends in a restaurant, you can say hello, but it's not proper to gab, gab, gab away," the teacher says, giving advice often ignored in many Hollywood watering-holes.
In five class sessions, Best covers introductions, social events (behavior at concerts, plays, clubs, in restaurants), entertaining and table manners, ending with a formal "graduation" dinner to which parents are invited. The course content combines traditional rules of etiquette, such as who is introduced to whom, with more general awareness of social situations and consideration for others. In the session on entertaining, for example, class members plan parties, usually around a theme.
Poise and Protocol
"We talk about how to choose a guest list, sending invitations, planning games and activities, little menus they can prepare themselves," said Best, who worked in protocol for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. "But we also talk about how to be aware of each of their guests' needs, how to bring stragglers into a group, how to start a conversation and draw everyone in."
At Bullock's Pasadena, courses called "White Gloves and Party Manners" (for 1st-3rd grade girls) and "Poise for Preteens" (for 4th-6th grade girls) have drawn students "from all cultures and backgrounds," according to instructor Anne Kibler. "Our classes have really reflected the ethnic mix in the surrounding area."
The courses offered at Bullock's are franchised nationwide by Marjabelle Young Stewart and Ann Buchwald (wife of columnist Art Buchwald), the authors of "White Gloves and Party Manners" and other etiquette books for children. Taught during the late '60s and early '70s, the courses were discontinued as interest waned. Recent inquiries from the public brought them back last year at five Bullock's stores (Pasadena, La Habra, Santa Ana, Thousand Oaks and Lakewood) and "once the word got out, they were fully enrolled," according to Kibler. The six-session class ends with a tea for the girls with their mothers and grandmothers, at which they wear party dresses, demonstrate their newly learned social skills over punch and cookies, and get a diploma. A course for elementary school-aged boys, called "Blue Blazers," will be added at the Pasadena store this fall.
"The course is based on a book that comes from the East, but I tailor it to the California scene," Kibler said. "We don't spend time on subjects like what to do with your umbrella and muddy shoes, or how to remove a coat. I have yet to see a little girl wear a coat to my class. Also, I try to keep up-to-date; for example, we cover how to speak into a telephone answering machine."
Kibler's charges learn to be flexible, too: "I talk to the girls a lot about showing respect for the age of the people you are with, but within reason," she said. "You can really please your grandmother by standing when she walks into the room, but your teen-age brother's just going to laugh at you."