Life is brutal and short, but we can still be polite. That, along with urging me to use the good silver every day, pull my hair into a ponytail and keep my face clean, is what my mother and grandmother taught me. Earlier in the summer, I wrote a piece for the August issue of NJ Life & Leisure about manners----remembering them, using them, holding them dear. You can check out the story on line (it starts on page 18), or you can read it here. Please.
Getting Down With Decorum
I was brought up by my mother and grandmother, Brooklyn schoolteachers who were polite, punctual, and had beautiful penmanship. They knew that a smile, a handshake and a hastily-written thank you note could atone for almost any sin. One of my first birthday presents was a creamy, cardboard box filled with tissue-thin paper that had my name discreetly engraved across the top in pale blue script. The stationery was given to me for the express purpose of writing thank you notes, and writing them soon. If I had a birthday party on a Sunday, I wrote thank you notes on Monday.
My brother and I were taught to say please and thank you. If we were introduced to an adult, we shook the person’s hand and looked him or her in the eye. If someone asked how we
were, we were instructed to answer, “Fine, thank you. How are you?” It was always,“May I please have?” instead of “Can you get me…?” If an adult noted that I resembled my mother, I was supposed to say, “Thank you,” not, “No, I don’t!” And, of course, “Excuse me,” if we burped, passed gas or elbowed someone in the stomach.
At the time, I resisted this enforced formality, which seemed rehearsed, self-conscious and ridiculous. But now that I am the mother of two pre-adolescent boys who laugh hysterically
when they fart or curse, and can barely be bothered to say hello when someone new enters the house, I see that Mom and Grandma were on to something.
Lisa Finan wants to bring back the formality and civility of my youth. A trained anthropologist, she is also the regional manager and head of business development for Social Smarts
(www.socialsmarts.com) and is making it her business, literally, to bring manners to the children of New Jersey. A friendly, attractive, middle-aged mother of two, with curly red hair and a relaxed manner, Finan, 47, hardly seems the starchy, hair-in-a-bun, ceremonial “Miss Manners” type. When I visited her at home, she greeted me in a bathing suit and introduced me to her white Maltese dog “Spike.” Her specialty is being gracious and grateful, and putting children
– and adults – at ease. Raised in California, Finan describes her family as blue collar. “My grandparents spoke Italian and there was a certain expectation about how you should behave,” she says. “Obeying authority was important, and it was important to be quiet. That didn’t mean you shouldn’t be heard, but you had a lot to learn before you flew the coop.” What bothers her
now, she says, is all the “self-conscious parenting. We want to make sure we don’t burst our children’s self esteem, so we parent them with unconditional love but no discipline.”
Despite her upbringing, Finan admits that teaching her children to be respectful was as challenging for her as it is for the rest of us. “My son was driving me nuts. He was five and
so obnoxious,” she says. “Mostly he was just being a boy, but he needed some old fashioned expectations and rules.” Finan met Corinne Gregory, who had founded a program called
Social Smarts and turned it into a franchise. Finan adapted Social Smarts for her own home, teaching her kids to make their beds, pack their backpacks, clear their plates, and say,
“Mom, can I do anything?” She reminds them to respect the “house, and look outside of themselves. “Kids are 100% balls of ego. They are naturally going to think of themselves. We
don’t have to add to it,” she says. “I told my kids, ‘You’re part of the family corporation; your job is to make the family business run smoothly.”
Finan started conducting Social Smarts classes in and out of her house and now holds classes at the Professional Women’s Center, the Center for Healthy Living, and the Montclair Adult School. She also does private coaching and in the fall, is launching the Cotillion Program, a pilot
program sponsored by PNC Bank and the City of Newark’s Department of Neighborhood and Recreational Services, which aims to teach social skills to 100 high school juniors and seniors, and prepare them for college and job interviews. Also in the works is an MTV reality show geared
towards college women, and a book deal.
Is she trying to start some kind of a protocol revolution? Absolutely. “Good manners are like a passport. Even if you don’t speak the language of another country, you can always
speak the language of being kind. Manners are a currency that will get our kids far in dealing with other cultures. Our country is young; we’re like teenagers. We’re bratty and we think we know everything. Our national persona tends to be characterized by the arrogant cowboy. Everyone’s pretty much had enough of that.”
Just don’t call what she’s teaching charm school. “I actually hate the word ‘manners,’” Finan says. “People’s eyes glaze over when you say it.” She prefers “social skills.” Yes, students are taught how to hold a fork and knife, and put a napkin in their laps, but the girls don’t wear white gloves, the boys don’t sport blue blazers, tea is not served from a silver service and the ghost of Emily Post does not hover in the foyer. “We are not a finishing school,” Finan says. “Most people don’t go to cotillions or the White House. Ninety-five percent of us are just schlubbing through life.” What Finan teaches is “enforced empathy” for all that schlubbing, and she tries to make children aware of how they can serve a situation and add to it, rather than just seize what they need from it. So in her eight-part class, students learn how to say hello and goodbye, answer the phone, set a table, eat properly (“it’s a spoon, not a shovel”), serve themselves, wait for the host or the hostess to be seated, deal with food they don’t care for, excuse themselves from the table, clear the table, show respect for property, and how to behave when a situation becomes unpleasant (a gift is received that is not wanted or another child takes the last cupcake). Courtesy, kindness and compassion are encouraged; the golden rule (treat others the way you want them to treat you) is repeatedly referred to until it becomes embedded in the children’s cerebral cortex.
Curious about the process of introducing propriety to those who don’t necessarily want to meet it, I asked Finan if I could watch her teach what she preached. She invited me to sit in on a half-hour session she was having at her house, the last of eight private coaching lessons she was giving a boy, who, she said, had once been “fresh,” and was now, “lovely.” We will call
At 6 o’clock one hot summer evening, Robert arrived with his mother after a long day at camp. He was a handsome, darkhaired, sweet-looking, seven-year-old, but he was completely
beat, and in no mood to practice being polite. He said he wanted to go home and watch TV. His mother apologized; Finan said she understood. I selfishly thought about the various childcare
hoops I had jumped through so that I could get to this interview without my seven-year-old in tow. We stood around Finans’ bright, yellow office and watched Robert look miserable. The
orange taffeta curtains billowed in the breeze. Lisa offered Robert juice and jellybeans. Robert repeated that he wanted to go home. More juice was offered. Eventually, Robert agreed to
the lesson. His mother went to sit in the living room.
Finan reintroduced Robert to me. He shook my hand.
“Ask her how she is,” Finan suggested.
Robert misunderstood. “I’m not going to ask her out,” he said.
I reassured him that I was married, and couldn’t go out with him even if I wanted to.
He asked me how I was.
I said, “Good, thank you,” and we all took our seats. Robert sat quietly with his hands in his lap,
and Finan began asking questions from her “Social Smarts” notebook. She reviewed the three C’s: Courtesy, caring and consideration.
“What do we do with our knapsack?” Finan asked.
“You drop it instead of throwing it,” Robert said.
“What do we do with our shoes?
Robert was silent.
“You take them off,” Finan said. “Let’s talk about being gracious and grateful. What happens if someone gives you a present you don’t like?”
Robert thought for a second. “I got chapter books when I was five. I hate chapter books. I actually said that.”
Finan: “What should you have said?”
“Thank you, I love chapter books, I’ll read this every day.”
“No, you don’t want to tell a lie.”
Robert tried again. “I would have preferred a snowboard?”
Finan smiled. “You say, ‘Thank you very much for that birthday present.’ You want to say the one thing that is true that is nice.”
Robert fidgeted but answered the rest of Finan’s questions.
After half an hour, Finan offered him more jellybeans; he accepted. She also gave him a supersaver for Six Flags that was good for one slice of pizza and one drink.
“What do you say?” Finan asked.
Robert looked at the coupon. “That’s good.”
“What else do you say?”
Robert’s mother returned to the room. Finan smiled. “Look,” she said. “If there’s any slippage, just put the golden rule up on the refrigerator.”
Then Robert, his mother and I slipped into the night. Like my mother and my grandmother, Lisa Finan recognizes that knowing how to behave, even – no, especially –when we would
rather not, is ultimately what makes people civilized. Some situations demand we act the opposite of how we feel, and good manners help us navigate treacherous waters. This is
such an old-fashioned thought, but it feels like enlightenment. My grandmother’s world is gone, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to rebuild it.