Etiquette guru Theresa Thomas was horrified: During a recent wedding dinner, none of her adult tablemates held their utensils properly.
"They held their forks like daggers--like they were about to stab a wild beast," sniffed Thomas, 41, of Irvine.
Thomas longed to tell them to hold their forks the way they do pencils--steadied between index and middle fingers, thumbs up--a technique she teaches children in her popular etiquette classes.
Good manners forbade it.
"Good manners consist of being kind and considerate to others," Thomas told children attending a recent dining-skills seminar at the Center Club in Costa Mesa.
By the end of the class, the children were able to "read" the silverware lineup--understand the difference between the salad, dinner and dessert forks, for example--at a formal place setting. They also knew the proper way to hold their utensils and unfold their linen napkins. "Lift the napkin to your lap and turn it over so the fold faces your waistline," Thomas coached.
Children's etiquette classes are gaining popularity, experts say. And not because kids are seeking out yet another after-school activity.
"We're seeing an explosion in etiquette classes for kids because parents in their mid-40s to early 50s--members of what I call the 'McManners generation'--don't want their children to be in the situation many of them are in," said Dorothea Johnson, director of the Protocol School in Washington, D.C. "They've spent so much time eating with their hands they don't know how to hold a fork--and they've found it's a stumbling block in their careers."
Business etiquette expert Dana May Casperson of Santa Rosa, author of "Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career," says good manners are at the root of successful business relations.
"People skills may not be measurable--you can't put a dollar sign on them--but when you lose a contract and you don't know why, well, maybe it's because you laid your linen napkin over your whole dinner plate," she said.
Such gaffes speak loudly of a person's inattentiveness to detail, said Casperson, who will conduct a power etiquette course at the Robert Mondavi Wine & Food Center in Costa Mesa on Oct. 27.
"Members of the flower-children generation dismissed etiquette, so they aren't able to give their children the training they need," Casperson added.
Parents who sign up their children for etiquette courses are looking to give them an edge, Thomas said. "Competition is high among kids in Orange County. And etiquette is a lifetime skill, right up there with knowing how to use a computer."
Lisa Heasley of Anaheim Hills brought her two sons, ages 8 and 10, to the class at the Center Club because she wanted them to have confidence in social situations. "If they know the proper way to dine, they won't offend others and they'll be better able to enjoy themselves," Heasley said.
Etiquette coach Marge Frazier, who conducts classes at Someplace in Time in Orange, has found that parents are becoming deeply concerned about "what's going on with young people."
"Every day, parents are hearing of violent incidents among kids," Frazier said. "They see that we're becoming a society that lacks respect for one another."
Be Confident at the Table
Respect is at the heart of good manners, said etiquette teacher Terrence Baxter of Lake Forest. Something as simple as a handshake can demonstrate the amount of respect you have for another person.
"A handshake should be firm--not a dainty, grab-the-fingers kind of thing," Baxter tells his students. "But not strong enough to hurt."
Baxter played a first-class passenger in the film "Titanic." To prepare, he studied early 20th century etiquette.
"People were much more reserved then," he said. "And the No. 1 rule was politeness. People in 1912 were schooled in the art of being respectful."
"Is it OK to put your elbows on the table?" Thomas asked members of her preteen class on a recent Saturday at the Center Club. "Nooooooo," they said in unison.
"OK to blow on hot food? Slather butter on a hunk of bread instead of tearing pieces off and buttering each as you go?" They shook their heads.
"Today, I'm going to help you with all special situations in dining," said Thomas, who was dressed in a perfectly pressed fuchsia suit. "I don't want you to have to worry in any dining situation. I want you to be comfortable and confident when you sit down to a meal."
Perhaps Johnson best sums up the importance of learning protocol: "I'm fond of saying that while good manners alone won't get you anywhere, they will give you an edge over the other person who is probably just as smart as you are."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Where to Find Etiquette Classes
* Center Club
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
* Robert Mondavi Wine & Food Center
1570 Scenic Ave., Costa Mesa
* Someplace in Time
132 S. Glassell, Orange