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"It's a myth that if you learn manners, you must be a snob," says Patricia Tice, a former student of Everding and now the proprietor of Etiquette Iowa in West Des Moines. "If we all have a certain code of conduct and follow it the best we can, we get along better."
"The idea that people can behave naturally, without resorting to an artificial code tacitly agreed upon by their society, is as silly as the idea that they can communicate by a spoken language without commonly accepted semantic and grammatical rules," wrote Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, in her book-length essay Common Courtesy.
"For if everyone improvises his own manners," she continued, "no one will understand the meaning of anyone else's behavior, and the result will be social chaos and the end of civilization, or about what we have now."
In other words, Everding explains, "everyone wants to make their own rules. It's easier to say, 'Don't do it.'"
"Manners are about making other people comfortable, about putting others first," says Melenie Broyles, owner of Etiquette Saint Louis and Tice's business partner. (Their company, Manners Incorporated, also runs classes and seminars in Chicago and Kansas City.) "My bywords are kindness, courtesy and respect. I'm better than no one and as good as anyone."
Even Everding has been known to relax her standards of good manners. "Someone once said to me, 'Thanksgiving at your house must be so elegant!' Really, it's a lot of loud Italians banging on glasses." (Everding considers glass-clinking the most detestable of social customs. "You break so much good crystal that way!")
Tice, who has studied behavioral science, believes manners extend beyond simple hospitality. "Everyone has an innate need to belong to something," she says. "If you know how to act, you belong, and that boosts your self-esteem. If people learn manners, they're more comfortable in social situations. When people get dressed up, they feel better, they stand taller and straighter, they're proud of who they are — as well they should be. It's an amazing thing."
Tice does confess that she adheres to etiquette rules more staunchly than most. "I am an anachronism. I'm almost too cosmopolitan for people in Iowa. I wear gloves every day."
"If you start to shake hands with someone who has lost an arm, shake his other hand. If he has lost both arms, shake the tip of his artificial hand (be quick and unembarrassed about it)." — The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette
An etiquette expert is never stumped. Seated at a table in the Coffee Cartel in the Central West End, Melenie Broyles prepares to face down a battery of questions. She's dressed casually, in a button-down shirt and capri pants, but her long blond hair is carefully coiffed, her face is fully made up and her flip-flops are monogrammed.
What is the proper behavior at a place, say Busch Stadium, that isn't known for its etiquette?
"You half-stand when other people need to get past you and face forward. You can throw peanut shells on the ground, but throw away big things. Remember to be considerate of the people who have to clean up. During a big play, don't talk loudly enough to be disturbing to others. Don't badmouth the other team or heckle. I'm also not a big fan of booing."
What if the Cubs are in town?
"We're not even going to go there."
How do you deal with a drunken person who is shouting obscenities at you?
"You can't deal with drunks. You can't reason with them. The best thing to do would be to remove yourself from the situation. It's not going to end well. Their inhibitions have dropped, and they have nothing to lose. They feel invincible."
What do you do in a traffic jam when someone cuts you off?
"You can't correct people if you don't have contact with them. Give the other driver the benefit of the doubt. Acknowledge the kindness of others, like when they let you into traffic. People always have this need to be right, especially in traffic."
Is discussion of politics still verboten?
"The election year does make this difficult, with the never-ending media coverage, and it's not going to stop. You don't want to pretend to be ignorant, because you'll sound like an idiot. Just say you're leaning a certain way, but that you see the good and bad on both sides. Respect other people's opinions without getting hostile."
How much cologne is too much?
"You should only be able to smell someone's fragrance if you're close enough to hug them."
Why shouldn't men wear socks with sandals?
"Socks keep your feet warm. Sandals keep your feet cool. Be a man and make up your mind." (Broyles answered this very question the same way on a radio show. Former WVRV (101.1 FM) DJ Cornbread was so impressed by her response that he dubbed her the "Rock & Roll Etiquette Chick").
Etiquette experts don't view themselves as the guardians of civilization. They just know more about the social rules that perplex everyone else, and they enjoy passing that knowledge along. "It's never been a job for me," says Maria Everding. "It's a passion."