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'90s FAMILY

Learning to Mind Their Ps and Qs

September 01, 1996|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Smile. Make eye contact. Shake hands. Say hello using the person's name.

Those are the manners Jeff Michael wants his children to remember when meeting adults. "These are really easy things to do," he says, "but they don't come naturally."

Michael is not a stickler for etiquette, but the Foothill area father of children ages 9, 6 and 5 thinks good manners matter. And when his children call adults by their names, it's not their first names. Michael wants his children in the practice of addressing grown-ups using courtesy titles.

"I think the issue is that often aging adults don't want to recognize they're getting older, so they'll say, 'You can call me John.' My response is, 'Thank you, but it's important that my children refer to you as Mr. Johnson.' It shows respect," he says.

Philadelphia etiquette expert Mary Mitchell agrees. The author, who writes the syndicated column "Ms. Demeanor" and owns Uncommon Courtesies, an etiquette consulting firm, says the entire concept of middle age and authority is different than a generation ago.

"Many parents today are the baby boomers who eschewed the formalities they grew up with. To them, using honorifics such as Mr. Mrs. or Miss were reserved for the people in their parents' age group," she says. Her bottom line: It's impolite to call an adult by the first name unless given permission.

Family life is less formal because everyone is in a hurry and parents aren't recognizing the need for etiquette, Mitchell says. "You have a whole generation that doesn't consider teaching manners part of parenting skills anymore."

Mitchell says that while social graces in the '90s are marked by fast living and casual repartee, the rules of good manners have always remained and society harbors a powerful unspoken prejudice against those with few or no social skills.

"It's a prejudice that cuts across racial and economic lines. We are judged on handshakes, table manners, the ability to introduce ourselves to others and how we give and receive praise," Mitchell says. "Manners come from inside and show your attitude toward people."

Experts say the child who grunts and embarrassedly scans the floor during introductions is less likely to succeed as an adult. Recent studies done at three major universities found that in the service-driven American economy, 85% of a person's job success depends on interpersonal skills.

"Consideration and manners are the glue that holds our society together," says Carol Forsythe, president of Forsythe Unlimited Etiquette Consultants in Los Angeles. Forsythe thinks crime rates are lower in other countries because children are still taught social skills.

Forsythe encourages parents to be consistent about teaching manners, and tells kids to make the attempt to acknowledge others.

"I think teaching manners helps children to be centered on others and not themselves," Michael says. "It's letting them see value in a smile and a handshake. It lets them feel good about others and themselves."

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