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"Manners are very communicable: men catch them from each other." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is recommended that when you attend a luncheon with St. Louis' First Lady of Etiquette, also known as Maria Everding, you always do as she tells you — even if her instructions are not in accordance with some of your more cherished assumptions about the world. For instance, it is not all right to spoon up your soup any way you like, even if you don't spill.
"You eat the soup with the spoon going away from you, like a ship going out to sea," Everding informs her audience at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where nearly 50 UMSL employees gathered earlier this month for her good-manners tutorial at the Millennium Student Center.
The title First Lady of Etiquette conjures an image of Margaret Dumont in Marx Brothers movies: Dumont's stiff hair helmet, ropes of pearls and sheer obliviousness to Groucho's double-entendres. That is precisely the image Everding seeks to avoid. She wears her dark hair in a crisp bob. She is dressed today in a bright red shirtwaist and ballet flats.
Yes, she is an authority on manners; no, she is not perfect. Witness the round, black stain on her skirt where she leaned against her car. "Should I say something about it?" she asks Teresa Balistreri, the director of career services and organizer of the luncheon. No, Balistreri advises.
"Manners are really just guidelines," Everding likes to say, "just good common sense." And it does make sense to plan seating arrangements so that you are sitting next to — rather than across from — the person with whom you plan to do business. Electronic name badges are tacky, and it's loutish to use the tablecloth to wipe one's nose.
Everding, who is 65, did not intend to turn the simple consumption of a cup of soup into a complex exercise in fine motor coordination, but somehow soup defies simple logic. "Remember," Everding says, "like a ship going out to sea! And never put the entire bowl of the spoon in your mouth. Sip from the side."
Gingerly, the UMSL employees pick up their soup spoons, look nervously around the table to make sure everyone has been served and dip tentatively into their bowls.
"Now what do you do if you have crackers?" Everding asks.
"You crumble them?" someone ventures.
"No!" Everding cries. "If you have crackers, break them in half once or twice. Never crumble them or open the plastic bag with your teeth. And your mother was right: No slurping!"
The entrée arrives, bringing with it a new set of complications: the knife and fork. Both, Everding counsels, should be considered extensions of the index fingers. "The fork is not a spear," she says, as moves from table to table to observe the self-conscious diners as they cut into their chicken.
"If you have something in your mouth you can't eat, like gristle," Everding adds, "spit it discreetly into your cupped fingers and hide it under something on your plate. That's why the parsley's there."
"Oh!" a few people chorus in sudden enlightenment. "I was kidding," Everding says.
The UMSL employees are attending Everding's seminar to improve their manners in the hope of making a better impression on the outside world. Some have become so absorbed in the finer points of etiquette rules, they begin to argue amongst themselves. "She said it was OK to pass the bread basket to the right if it's going to the person next to you."
Other students, though, are not quite so agreeable. Several years ago, British actress Miriam Margolyes, best known for playing Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies, attended an etiquette class at Webster University as part of a BBC documentary on Charles Dickens' 1842 tour of the United States. Dickens found American manners appalling, and in American Notes, his book about that trip, singled out St. Louisans as "pretty rough, and intolerably conceited."
During the filming of the class, Margolyes purposely attempted to discomfit Everding by loudly criticizing the manners of her fellow students, all the while picking at her teeth with a napkin tucked into her collar. Everding was unruffled; as she likes to tell her students: "Manners aren't prissy."
"A lot of people ask me why I never eat at these luncheons," Everding muses. "It's because I'd spill everything."
"It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserves a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." — Thomas Jefferson
Only once has Maria Everding caused serious offense during one of her lectures. And no, it was not the time her bracelet fell into a water glass.
It happened at Ramapo College of New Jersey. "I said that unless they had religious reasons, gentlemen should always remove their hats indoors," Everding recalls. "One young man was wearing a baseball cap and refused to take it off. He said, 'I'm my own person!' and walked out.
"People just aren't considerate anymore," Everding complains. "Without manners, life could be barbaric and dangerous, even more so than it already is."