The founder of The Protocol School of Washington and current Maine resident has written six books on manners.

Her biggest pet peeve at the moment?

“The phrase ‘No problem.’ What ever happened to ‘You’re welcome?'” she says.

“‘No problem’ can very offensive to some,” she adds, during a phone interview from her Yarmouth home.

When I set out to discover the ins and outs of manners, something I consider to be a lost art — and hey, if anyone needs finishing, it is I — I didn’t realize how nerve wracking it would be to speak with someone about manners.

For instance, after Johnson thanks me warmly for taking the time to speak with her, out of my mouth flies “No problem.”

D’oh!

Slow down

We’ve all been there. That sticky social situation when you wonder just how you’re going to dig yourself out of that deep, dark abyss of social awkwardness.

You know? Like that time I fell down (doing my best to mimic a turtle) in front of two major country stars and had to be helped back up by one. Or how about that time I completely snubbed the governor of Virginia because I frankly did not recognize him?

Yeah, just like those situations.

To help in my quest for greater social graces, I also speak in-depth with Andrea Pastore from Scarborough, owner/educator at Etiquette Solutions, about all things etiquette.

She invites me warmly into her home and offers me a sweet treat and a cup of coffee, which I decline — she assures me that is perfectly OK to do.

After pleasantries are exchanged, I launch right into it. Why are people so darn rude these days? And why do they assume familiarity and lack of formality?

“We have become so desensitized to what is proper or polite,” starts Pastore, a mother of two in her second career. “There is a whole lack of decorum or civility.”

She references the reality television shows that have become wildly popular.

“It’s the crap that’s on television. What’s cool now, what’s in, is bad behavior,” says Pastore.

It’s true. We as a society are watching men and women — from the Jersey shore to the posh homes of Orange County — behave like cave men and women. They are throwing tables as much as they are throwing insults.

And it is just bad manners.

On the phone with Johnson, she points to the pace at which we live in society as another influence. 

“Everybody is in such a hurry. . . . We need to be more aware of others and I think to practice respect toward others. When you show respect toward others, you also show respect toward yourself,” Johnson says in her well-cultured, well-paced voice. “People are always rushing, rushing, rushing, and I don’t think they are accomplishing any more.”

Listen up

That got me to thinking, because along with “no problem,” Johnson dislikes the terms “you too” and “likewise.” These are terms I — of course — said to her as we are ending our conversation. But why?

Well, I am so very, very guilty of half listening. Instead of focusing my full attention on the speaker, my mind is usually listening to another conversation at the table next to me, or thinking about what I am going to write, or a whole host of other issues running through my head.

I don’t think I am alone in this either.

Johnson wishes that instead of saying “no problem,” “you too” and “likewise,” people would take the time to respond in a not-so-lazy manner. 

When she said to me “It has been a pleasure to speak with you,” instead of responding “likewise,” I should have said, “And it was a great pleasure to speak with you as well.” Yes, it’s more words, but it also would have let her know I was LISTENING to her and acknowledging what she had just said. 

Instead, I was passively listening, and taken off guard by the statement, so I responded like I always do: “Mm-hmm, you too.”

Johnson points to a passage in her newest book, “Modern Manners,” which she co-authored with her granddaughter Liv Tyler, and say the key to good conversing is good listening. She starts off her section “Listen Up” with a quote from American financier Bernard Baruch.

“‘Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.’ I think that is a great quote,” Johnson says. 

Pastore agrees. She says listening is key in any situation. If you look interested, you will be engaging. By listening, you will remember little bits of information about that person you can use when encountering them again, which is a sure and easy way to impress anyone. 

Stand up

When speaking about etiquette, manners often have a regional flavor.

“There are some things we do here in Maine that would get us laughed right off the streets in New York City,” Johnson says and chuckles.

Like wearing a pair of L.L. Bean boots for function and not ironically paired with skinny jeans. It has nothing to do with manners, but boy do those New Yorkers think it’s funny.

What it boils down to is making others feel comfortable and remembering to say “please” and “thank you,” the experts say. What usually nerves most people up is when they confuse etiquette with protocol, which are the unyielding rules of state dinners and ceremonial events.

Do you know what to do at tea with the queen of England? Nope, neither do I. But it is a situation most of us will never face, so there is no need to worry about it. Having tea with the future in-laws is not dining with the duke and duchess of Cambridge, so don’t treat it like it is. Just remember to use your manners and try not to look like a buffoon.

And if you ever do find yourself invited to Buckingham Palace, for gosh sakes make sure you read a book and maybe take a lesson or two on protocol!

“Be the best that you can be at all times, every time. It only takes seconds to make that first impression, but it takes a lot longer to change it,” Pastore cautions.

The easiest way to make a good impression is to go ahead and introduce yourself. Don’t wait for anyone to do it for you. Also, make eye contact and have a good handshake. 

“Shaking hands is so important,” says Pastore. “It’s a way to make a first impression and a handshake says so much. If you shake like dead fish, it feels like there is no life on the other side. It shows that there is no interest on the other end and that it was a waste of time.”

Speaking of first impressions, Johnson adds, “It used to be that women didn’t have to stand when meeting new people, and that is so antiquated. When someone doesn’t stand when meeting new people, to me it looks as if they fell off the turnip truck.”

She continues: “It’s disrespectful to the person and to oneself. If someone comes into your office, you rise and walk around your desk because your desk is a barrier. If it’s an executive that’s coming in and out of your office all day, you don’t need to rise, or for fellow employees. But if it’s a new client or a perspective new client, you always rise and walk around your desk.”

Zip it

Other thoughts on etiquette today?

Both Pastore and Johnson agree that cell phones have diminished our interpersonal skills. 

“People have lost the ability to have a decent conversation because they are so used to conversing with people over the phone, not face to face,” Johnson says. “That’s why when you talk to a lot of people, they don’t make eye contact because they are not used to doing it because they are on the cell phone so much. There is no face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact anymore.”

Lack of conversational skills leads to less consideration of our fellow human beings and doing things like interrupting when people are talking.

“I constantly caution people that I have worked with to please, when they are talking with someone, if that person pauses, do not try to finish their sentence. It’s their sentence, not yours. Let them finish it even if they are struggling a bit,” says Johnson.

“It’s the little things we can do. And the more little things we can do collectively, the better our society will be. And it starts with each and every one of us. We have a choice to do that every day,” says Pastore.

She also says that thank-you cards can go a lot further than a thank-you email. Also, if you say you are going to follow up, make sure that you do, even if it takes awhile.

And one more thing: “People should stop and think about what they say. Don’t let your guard down enough that you’re swearing,” adds Pastore.

One of my final questions to each etiquette maven is about the manners of their own children.

“My kids still don’t hold a knife or a fork correctly,” laughs Pastore.

“She does have good manners, but she is sort of a wild child,” says Johnson of her daughter Bebe Buell. “I don’t really know where that came from.”

Things to remember

Conversation:

  • Listen, listen, listen! Let the other person do most of the talking if you’re having a hard time making small talk. People love to answer questions and talk about themselves.
  • Ask questions. “Are you from around here?” “How do you know the person hosting the event?” Questions lead to conversation. Dorothea Johnson, founder of The Protocol School of Washington and current Maine resident, cautions that she doesn’t like to pointedly ask a person what they do for a living, but more to lead into. This lets the conversation flow and allows you to find something in common with that person.
  • If you have simply run out of things to say, start commenting on the event itself. “Look at those flower arrangements!” “Have you tried some of this dip?”
  • When cornered by someone at a party and you’d like to escape, don’t say you have to go to the restroom and then don’t go. Easiest way to get out of talking to someone else is to introduce them to someone else. Don’t grab the person walking past, that’s desperate. But thank them for their time, say it was a pleasure and then introduce them to someone else. Last thing you want to do is make them feel bad.

Dining:

  • The tried and true adage to start from the outside and move in toward the plate when faced with a myriad of silverware is still true.
  • If you don’t know which bread plate or water glass is yours, make a “b” and “d” with your fingers. (Think of OK signs: Bring the thumb and forefinger together and keep the remaining fingers straight). The “b” is the side where your bread is location and the “d” is the side on which your drinks are located.
  • Tear off and butter each piece of bread as you eat it. Do not cut the bread and do not butter the entire roll.
  • When eating soup, spoon the liquid away from yourself (Andrea Pastore, owner of Etiquette Solutions in Scarborough, says to remember “out to sea”) and eat without slurping.
  • Try to avoid making excessive noise when stirring your coffee or soup.
  • If your coffee is too hot, simply let it sit and cool down. Never add ice cubes to your hot beverage. Again, loudly sipping is out.
  • Leave the cell phones off the table. And turn them off altogether.
  • If you drop a piece of silverware at a restaurant, just leave it. Don’t dive under the table looking for it.
  • Watch the host or hostess. When they place their napkin in their lap, it signifies the start of the meal.
  • If you are wondering what to do, simply watch another person at the table. Likely someone will know the proper protocol and then mirror that person.
  • Remember, the dinner party is about the people you are eating with and not so much about the food. Don’t eat too fast or too slow, but always enjoy the conversation.

Cocktail parties, small gatherings or networking events:

  • Cocktail parties are about networking and making connections, not about getting seconds on the free food.
  • What’s your purpose for being there? If it’s networking, network. Make contact with every person.
  • Pass out business cards in good condition that do not have writing on them. Don’t wrap cards in an elastic, but invest in a business card holder.
  • When you receive a business card, stop and take a moment to look at it and then make a small comment about it.
  • Passing out business cards is about making a connection. It’s OK to write on the back as a reminder to follow up. And if you say you’re going to follow up, DO!
  • Dress for the occasion. Flip-flops are OK for the beach, but not for an event.
  • If it’s social occasion, like an engagement party, keep the couple in mind. Don’t get into anything controversial and don’t gossip.
  • Be prepared. If you know what situations you’re going into, go to the library and check out a book on situational etiquette, IE: how to interview, business etiquette, wedding etiquette, etc. “There is no reason not to be prepared in today’s society,” says Pastore. If you’re not prepared, it could cost you.
  • Don’t dictate to the hostess, unless they have asked, what the menu should include. If you special dietary needs, only take the food you can eat. Don’t talk about your dietary restrictions because people don’t want to hear about it. It’s the same about dieting. You can politely decline.
  • If you think they won’t have anything for you to eat, eat before you go. And if they do accommodate you and you’ve eaten, it’s polite to take a small portion or to say, “I’ve had a late lunch and I’m just not hungry.”

General pointers:

  • Stand up when meeting people for the first time and when shaking peoples’ hands.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Put your cell phone away!
  • Turn off cell phones at weddings, funerals, plays, movies, etc.
  • Be mindful of other people; hold the door open for someone or if you see someone looking confused or in distress (like they can’t reach that top shelf in the grocery story), help them!
  • Be mindful of your body language! “It speaks volumes,” says Pastore. “There are something like 5,000 facial expressions you can make.”
  • When talking to someone, mirror that person (but don’t copycat: aka doing their exact movements). It makes them feel comfortable. It’s about trying to make a connection with the person.
  • Don’t look at your watch or let your eyes wander or roll, because that says you’re not paying attention. But also don’t stare the person down.
  • Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. “Introducing yourself gives you a lot of confidence and it projects a lot of confidence,” says Johnson. “Maybe not so much in other countries, but in the United States, you can introduce yourself to anyone, even a celebrity, if you can get close enough.”

Business emails

  • “You’re better off leaning toward the more formal than the more causal. I’d rather someone be more formal with me than with a LOL kind of thing,” Pastore says about emailing.
  • You can still be friendly, but be short and sweet about it. Bring up something that makes it personal and let them know you remember them.

Source: Andrea Pastore and Dorothea Johnson


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