"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."
"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."
Everding got her start at the age of seventeen when she was offered a full scholarship to Patricia Stevens College in St. Louis, then a modeling and finishing school, in exchange for teaching classes in etiquette. "I fell in love with it," she says.
In 1982, she established her first etiquette business, Pretty As A Picture. She taught manners to teenage girls at Saks Fifth Avenue. The first year, she had 37 students. The next year, enrollment swelled to 210. She eventually began to teach boys and adults, too. She then moved the classes to Dillard's and expanded to 150 cities in the U.S. and Mexico.
She sold the business in 2004 — "the thought of telling another child how to shake hands..." she says, shaking her head — and switched to teaching business etiquette, mostly to college students and young professionals. She charges $2,000 for a two-day seminar.
"College kids are so much fun," she says. "They're eager and moldable. Teenagers look at you like you have four heads, but college kids really want to learn. They have atrocious table manners."
Everding recently published an updated edition of her business-etiquette guide Panache That Pays, which contains such invaluable nuggets of wisdom as "Use your napkin, because nothing is finger lickin' good (apologies to the Colonel)," "Jello shots are not business drinks," and "Cleavage should show only on your time."
Broyles and Tice also stumbled unexpectedly into the world of etiquette, Broyles through her previous career in human resources and Tice during a year studying abroad in England, where she also developed a passion for tea. They both try to transmit their enthusiasm for manners to their students. To do this, particularly with boys, Broyles resorts to necktie-tying contests. "They won't admit they like it," she says.
Back at the Coffee Cartel, Broyles' interrogation concludes with a question of utmost importance:
Is it ever OK to drink beer out of a bottle?
Broyles sighs. "A lady should drink beer out of a glass. Have I ever drunk beer out of a bottle?" She hesitates now, as though about to confess a major transgression. "Yes. Sometimes beer just tastes better out of a bottle."
"Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth, Napkin, or Fork or Knife. Spit not in the fire. Kill no Vermin as Flees, lice, ticks & cet. in the Sight of Others." — George Washington, age fifteen
Etiquette guides have existed for as long as people have been around to write them. The earliest surviving manual is The Instructions of Ptahhotep, dating back to 2300 B.C. Scholars believe Ptahhotep was the vizier to the Egyptian pharaoh Isesi, and the instructions were addressed to his son.
Ptahhotep did not go into great detail about the uses of serving utensils and the proper way to write a thank-you note. Instead, he was more concerned with issues of court behavior, largely humility, which he considered more essential than table manners in getting ahead.
Maria Everding keeps a collection of old etiquette books in the living room of her home in Town & Country and enjoys unearthing fascinating facts on the history of manners.
"People stick out their pinkies when they drink tea," she explains, "because back in the Middle Ages, before most people had forks, uncouth people would eat with their whole hand. Couth people only used their thumb and forefinger."
The first napkins, called mapas, were large cloths the size of beach towels which the Romans would lie on and then use as bundles to carry extra food home. The handshake developed as a way of proving that one was unarmed. Everding's least-favorite custom, the clinking of glasses after a toast, evolved from the habit of people pouring wine into each other's cups to prove that nobody had poisoned anyone.
Not everyone appreciated the evolution of manners: In 1005, St. Peter Damian attributed the death of a young Venetian noblewoman not to the plague (its apparent cause), but to God's wrath, which she incurred by using a fork and sometimes daring to take a bath in fresh water.
The word "etiquette" itself comes from the eighteenth-century French court. "When you left court," Everding recounts, "they would give you a little piece of paper — an etiquette — with a tip for proper behavior written on it, and as you left, they would say, 'Study your etiquette!'"
This system came to an end with the French Revolution. Court manners were scorned in America as well: The Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, viewed them as contrary to the notion that all men are created equal. Jefferson himself wrote a new code of White House etiquette, which eliminated all social distinctions, even those between visiting dignitaries and servants. It also allowed him to greet the French ambassador in bedroom slippers.
Most Americans showed as little concern for manners as Jefferson. "The total and universal want of manners, both in males and females, is...remarkable," wrote British author Frances Trollope in her 1832 book Domestic Manners of the Americans. "That polish which removes the coarser and rougher parts of our nature is unknown and undreamed of."
It was not until the late 1800s when older members of New York society, aghast at the invasion of vulgar "new money," devised a daunting system of social rules — not to mention silverware — meant to repel anyone of humble origins who dared sit down at one of their twelve-course dinners. It was the Victorians who gave us such useful implements as the strawberry knife.
Unfortunately for the socialites, the New Yorkers had a spy in their midst: one Emily Post, whose 1922 book Etiquette revealed the secrets of good manners to the hoi polloi. It was a bestseller and said to have been a favorite among GIs during World War II, though it's hard to imagine now why they would have needed to understand the intricacies of where and when to leave a calling card, a subject to which Post devoted many, many pages.
The celebrated Emily Post passed on to the great dinner party in the sky in 1960. Today, her great granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post, has assumed the mantle of good manners. "Peggy Post is just a figurehead," Everding sniffs. "She doesn't know manners. She says an e-mailed thank-you note is OK, that it's better than nothing."
"The present generation is at least ahead of some of its 'very proper' predecessors in that weddings do not have to be set for noon because a bridegroom's sobriety is not to be counted on later in the day!" — Emily Post, Etiquette
Though most etiquette experts march resolutely into the 21st century, faithfully updating their manuals to reflect societal changes like gay marriages, e-mail and cell phones, many still yearn for what they imagine must have been a more gracious past, when women did not take offense at having doors opened for them.
"We've just become more slovenly in the way we present ourselves to the world," says Patricia Tice. "We're too casual. I'm all for being casual and comfortable, but there's a time and a place to dress for the occasion." Melenie Broyles regrets that young people do not habitually refer to adults as "Mr." or "Mrs." anymore. "Respect is not taught in our generation," she says. "No one wants to feel old."
But in business, Maria Everding says, a woman should always be addressed as "Ms." "That way, you don't have to look up her social status, whether she's married," she explains. "If someone is old enough to be your parent, use the honorific, but never 'sir' or 'ma'am.' That's outdated and makes you sound servile."
Tice has launched a one-woman campaign to restore good manners in Iowa. "If a clerk in a store doesn't say thank you, I say, gently, 'You're welcome,' and then they say, 'Oh, thank you!' I've prayed for forgiveness for holding up the line, but no one should ever be too busy to say thank you. I will not shop at stores where the clerk will not say thank you." She will not, however, compile a list of these stores for her clients. "That would be unkind and ill-mannered."
"No one is ever too high and mighty to say thank you," Everding says. "And why do people say, 'No problem'? That's so stupid. It makes me want to say, 'Is it a problem?'"
A.C. Kemp, a lecturer in linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently published an anti-etiquette manual called The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion, under the guise of a dissolute socialite named Lady Arabella Snark. In preparation, she made a thorough study of etiquette guides. "If you don't know the particular expectations for how to behave," she explains, "you can't really be rude."
Kemp has formed her own conclusion about old-fashioned etiquette: "Older experts like Emily Post exist in a world where nobody lives," she says. "You think, 'Wow, people in 1900 must have been so polite,' and then you remember they had spittoons. Those books were totally divorced from reality."
Still, Kemp has also noticed a decline in manners, particularly among cell phone users. "My old methods for dealing with them don't work as well as they used to," she admits. "My previous strategy was to stop and look at them and make comments on their conversations. But now when I do that, people think I'm being rude." (Lady Snark, incidentally, recommends beating such people with the nearest blunt object.)
"The only time you should keep your phone on in company is if you're expecting a kidney," Everding counsels. "If you can't give someone 45 minutes of your time, why should they do business with you?"
Everding advocates violence in only one particular situation: "You should smack anyone who shakes hands with a woman by grabbing her fingers. You shake hands with a woman the same way you shake hands with a man, palm to palm. Every handshake should be firm. If your palm gets sweaty, rub it on your side or put it in your pocket."
Broyles and Tice report increased enrollments for children's etiquette classes. "The pendulum is swinging back," Tice says. "We have become so casual, it's translated to complacency, and people are getting annoyed."
Thus emboldened, Everding, Broyles and Tice continue their crusades to restore civility to daily life, though they admit that some rules, like dressing up on an airplane, have fallen by the wayside. "Just don't wear your lawn-mowing outfit," Broyles pleads.
"My favorite rule is send a thank-you note," Everding says. "There is nothing more gracious and kind than sending a note. Send it within 24 hours so your real feelings go into the note." Although Everding says e-mail has attained the same level of formality as a letter, she still recommends sending a handwritten note through the mail. "It's more personal."
But they can only do so much. As Everding perches on the couch in her living room chatting about her career as St. Louis' First Lady of Etiquette, her pet Shih Tzu, Lulu, tries to jump up beside her. "Lulu!" she cries reprovingly. "You know that's bad manners!" The dog rests her paws on Everding's knees and looks up with round brown eyes. She sighs and scoops Lulu up onto her lap. "That's one thing we can't do," she says. "We don't do animal etiquette."
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.