Here is the gospel according to Miss Hill: "You have five seconds to make a good impression. It's packaging. You don't buy things in a yucky package, do you? And perhaps you've bought inferior products because they were in a nice package, haven't you?"
I have, I now realize. And that belated realization puts me on my guard. Etiquette intricacies that Miss Hill has lived and breathed for several decades are absorbed gradually by those in her company. She may or may not, for instance, be calmly critiquing my table manners as I attempt to eat and report at the same time. And so it was damned smart of me to arrive early, case the menu for something easy to eat, position myself with my back to the window and spend a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere of the Mount Vernon Country Club's lounge.
Excuse me. The polite version of what I meant to say was, thank heavens I arrived early, cased the menu for something easy to eat, positioned myself with my back to the window...
As for the atmosphere of the Mount Vernon Country Club, it is friendlier than the prevailing hoity-toity, private-club stereotype would have you believe, and certainly more relaxed. One of the tables I can see is occupied by eight women playing cards and speaking rapid-fire Spanish who may well have settled in for the afternoon. And the menu features a comfortingly old-fashioned touch: the Quiche of the Day. But I have my eye on something much simpler to eat correctly: a chicken sandwich. I am loaded for bear.
But my ammo is all wrong.
"I went to college at the age of forty and spent seven fun-filled years getting a degree," Miss Hill tells me, summing up her professional training.
"Wow," I say, taking in her flawless complexion and unlined face. "How old are you now?"
"That's not a polite question," she says sharply. "A woman who will tell you her age will tell you anything."
"That's true," I agree. "I'm forty, and I'll tell you...whatever...uh..."
Clearly, Miss Hill does not want to know whatever. Why should she? And suppose I were lunching with the president of some important republic? He wouldn't want to know, either.
Miss Hill is fond of pointing out that in this global economy, any of us could wind up dining with anyone, anywhere. But then, as she also likes to point out, none of us are born knowing the crucial social mores that range far beyond table manners, important as those may be.
"How to walk, how to sit, how to stand, the importance of good posture, how to shake hands appropriately," she says. "Good heavens--without practice, how do you get through these things?"
Miss Hill's young students will be getting plenty of practice this fall at the Colorado School of Protocol and Etiquette after a disappointing summer in which she offered several children's camps devoted to Dining Skills and Etiquette but got no takers. Now, however, children and their parents are apparently back in gear, and such classes as Teen Etiquette (Ages 13 to 17) are filling up fast. The campus for these studies will be the grounds of the Mount Vernon Country Club, where students are allowed to dine in the dining rooms, walk up the staircases--avoiding the dreaded "caboose-swinging motion"--and introduce themselves to staff members with a correct handshake and the words "Hello, I'm (your name here)." A beat and then, if there's no verbal response forthcoming, "And you are...?"
"Teaching them here gives the children an opportunity to be in this environment," Miss Hill explains. "To see that it's friendly and not intimidating." In fact, they will deduce the same about their fellow students, who, Miss Hill insists, are not culled strictly from the upper classes. "No, no, no," she says. "They come from all parts of the city, and they haven't all been Anglo. I feel so strongly that manners ought to be nothing less than a birthright for every child."
Miss Hill sighs contentedly, sips her white-wine spritzer, dabs at her lips with her napkin. "As you can see," she says, "I love what I do."
Slyly, Miss Hill invites me to observe several prosperous-looking men at a table near ours, one of whom is talking with his mouth full--"and thinking no one will notice," Miss Hill adds. Another is "attacking his food as if it's going to escape." I look. What I see is not the Viking debauch Miss Hill has led me to expect, but a scene somewhat more genteel than an average night at my own dinner table. It makes me want to ask: Have you ever had the feeling that a partly masticated bite of food was just...resting...in a far corner of your mouth, and you had forgotten all about it while telling some riveting anecdote? Oh, never mind. A woman who would ask that could reveal all sorts of revolting things, and revolting has no place at the Colorado School of Protocol and Etiquette.
Instead, while attempting a stealth napkin dab of my own, I ask: "Have you always wanted to work with children?"
She has. Credentialed in the state of Texas as a specialist in the education of deaf children, Miss Hill found she didn't like working in public education. While leafing through Town and Country, she noticed an ad for training at the Protocol School of Washington, flew to the nation's capitol, learned the curricula and launched her own etiquette consulting business and school in Denver only three months after moving here in the fall of 1996.
"My initial goal was to concentrate on deaf children, because they are so delayed socially," she explains. "You haven't lived until you've sat down at a dinner table with deaf children and watched them eat. Their table manners are sorely lacking, because how could they know? I saw etiquette as a way to prepare them to be successful in a hearing world."
To date, no deaf children have signed up for the classes that Miss Hill offers through her school, but her program has expanded beyond social skills for kids into the scarier subjects of international business etiquette and protocol for adults, taught by her partner, Sandra Segal. (Both claim to have consulted almost around the clock during last year's Summit of the Eight conference.)
It is still kids and their manners, though, that fire up Miss Hill's missionary zeal. "You have these dual-income families that are so over-scheduled," she says. "Even the children carry Day-Timers. You have parents who are so stretched. If and when they sit down to a meal--which I understand rarely happens--they don't want to spend the entire meal nagging their children. And their children interrupt, which is something that will really get my eyes crossed."
It certainly was not the way Linda Hill was brought up. The oldest of three, raised in Ohio by a mother who didn't work outside the home and didn't allow her childen to play with anyone whose mother did, she was sent to a charm school at the age of twelve--"it sounds pretentious, but I learned everything there"--and was always expected at the dinner table at "6 p.m. on the dot, dressed appropriately." Any breach of manners was instantly punished with a disapproving look "that would make a freight train take a dirt road," Miss Hill recalls. "If The Look didn't work, it was ratcheted up to a verbal warning, such as, 'Don't talk with food in your mouth.'"
Had the young Miss Hill been invited to an afternoon of etiquette at a country club, she would have known not to wear pants, a T-shirt or anything athletic. Today this is something she must spell out to her charges. Boys are required to don sport coats and slacks. Girls must wear skirts or dresses.
Miss Hill dabs and sighs. "You see, these children's parents were raised to challenge authority. And the Eighties saw a whole chunk of time where money, as opposed to manners, was all that mattered. I've had parents in their thirties tell me, 'I can't teach my children what they need to know because I never learned it.' Why do people not wake up and smell the coffee? We have gotten too casual, too informal. There is a certain ritual and dance that makes life pleasant. If those things weren't important, why would people pay so much attention to every detail of a state dinner? There is a pecking order. There needs to be a pecking order."
And just where within that pecking order, I wonder, does a luncheon dish fit that's advertised as a regular old chicken sandwich but really is an open-faced pool of melting cheese studded with slippery roasted vegetables and underpinned with substantial chunks of poultry that must be cut if they are going to be eaten? After placing this unwieldy meal in front of me, the waiter gives Miss Hill a little salad made of manageable, fork-sized chunks. I experience the "gut grind" Miss Hill has alluded to, the one that comes at that most uncomfortable of times--when you don't know what is expected of you but suspect the expectations are rigorous. I stab my fork into the center of the sandwich and begin to saw with my knife, hoping the tendons in my neck don't bulge from the effort.
If Miss Hill notices my discomfiture, she gives no outward sign, which is very mannerly of her. On the other hand, as she pointed out early in our conversation, "all sorts of judgments are being passed that we're not aware of, all the time." Also, as she has stated categorically, some foods are much too risky to eat in public. Spaghetti, she pronounces again and again. Lobster. This sandwich, I add silently.
"Now, now," Miss Hill admonishes. "I do know how to be silly. Miss Hill can belch with the best of them." Not in a restaurant, though. Miss Hill has also been known to amuse her classes with exaggerated renditions of bad manners and to hang around the house in her nightgown surfing the Net all morning. But most of her off-duty amusements are gracious to a fault, and she finds it "very disturbing" when her companions do not follow suit. Why, for example, do so many diners have problems passing bread counter-clockwise? It is such a simple skill, after all.
"In fact," she says, handing me the bread basket, "let's practice." We pass back and forth several times. "Good!" she says. "Very good! When my significant other sees the bread being passed the right way, he lights up. But then, dining with him makes me swoon. Such impeccable table manners."
Miss Hill's significant other, a British-born Volvo repairman who owns not just his own business but two tuxedos, is at the top of her unofficial chart. At the bottom are the unthinking "clods" who bumble through life smacking their lips, licking their fingers and yawning without covering their mouths. Some of these clods are her good friends. But, she decides, she may have to think of ways to see them at times other than during meals.
At this point, I start to assemble a chart of my own. A rough draft looks like this:
ESSENTIAL GOOD MANNERS UPON WHICH MISS HILL AND I AGREE
1. People should not chew gum practically ever, and certainly not in front of me.
2. When ordering a cookie at a Mrs. Fields, people should use a phrase that includes the word "please" instead of "Yeah, gimme a semi-sweet."
3. Children who can't talk yet should not be allowed to answer the phone.
4. People you meet should tell you who they are and be interested in knowing the same from you.
5. If people want to teach their children respect and manners, they should stop screaming at their spouses.
POINTS OF ETIQUETTE THAT HIT A LITTLE TOO CLOSE TO HOME
1. Close your mouth when you chew, don't lick your fingers, and stop smacking your lips in anticipation of gluttony.
2. Making conversation is not the same as telling everyone everything.
3. Exude quiet grace.
NICETIES FOR WHICH LIFE MAY BE TOO SHORT
1. Getting kids to call you Miz Chotzinoff instead of Robin.
2. Learning exactly where all the flatware is supposed to be laid--although putting it all out at once might fuel some to pleasant anticipation of gluttony.
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3. Proper use of manicure equipment; skin-care techniques.
4. The correct way to address and socialize with all kinds of dignitaries--from the mayor on up to the Sultan of Brunei.
But perhaps I have fallen into a popular misconception, "that these classes are so that you can act all snooty-tooty with your friends," Miss Hill says. "They're not. Look at it this way: Wouldn't you rather know all this and not have to use it than not know it and suddenly need it?"
Or look at it like this:
"This is what I tell my kids: What if I gave you the keys to my car and sent you out there to drive? You've watched your parents, so you have some idea, and you can always copy the other motorists. But what if half stop at the red lights and half don't, which often happens in real life? Chaos would prevail! You need to know what to expect," she says, insistently, "and it's not brain surgery.