It's still nice to be nice

Raven Smalls, 11, was all ears at an etiquette class Sunday.

Wade Spees

Eighteen months ago as the economy was tanking, Lizz Akerman considered stopping teaching manners to groups of young people around Charleston.

But then a funny thing happened: Instead of demand for lessons drying up in America's most polite city, her calls actually increased from schools and others seeking her input.

"We have more business now than we'd ever had," Akerman, owner of Southern Protocol, said Sunday. "I think it's people trying to focus on what's important." Even college graduates have made inquiries, hoping to better their job interviewing skills, she said.

The trend isn't evident only in her etiquette classes. Around Charleston, Akerman said, she's seen little, if any, diminishing of politeness at a time when moods might otherwise be expected to lean toward the gloomy, especially with local unemployment hovering around 8 to 9 percent.

The reason, as she sees it, is that manners are one of the things all people can hold on to in trying times to make the days go better, whether you're opening a door for someone at a store or eating, not pigging out, on a hot dog at a Riverdogs baseball game. "It's easy to be polite," she said. "Manners are for everyone, everywhere."

Akerman's comments came as she tried to pass on some of the do's and don'ts of tea party decorum -- not the new political movement kind -- during a gathering at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on Sunday afternoon. The room was filled with children, their parents and grandparents.

Some of the lessons were basic. First came the rules surrounding opening and placing a napkin, which should be softly opened and placed in your lap. "No bullfighting," said Sara Hosch, waving a napkin in the air like a matador.

The rules also were enlightening. For example, one lesson covered why it is bad form to raise pinkie fingers in the air while eating. Centuries ago it was considered proper for the rich to raise their pinkies as a sign of their upper class status, while the poor ate with all their fingers.

"It's wrong to point out 'I'm better than somebody else' " while dining, Hosch said.

Young girls in the audience seemed mesmerized by the two blonde teachers in front of them, while some of the boys fidgeted in their seats.

Another lesson: an older person meeting a younger person should always initiate the handshake, while women -- not men -- should be the first to offer a hand in greeting; otherwise the man's intentions could be interpreted as too forward.

Parents and children in attendance said they didn't think it would be too hard to remember all the rules that go behind something seemingly as simple as drinking tea and slicing a scone in half. "We practice it," said LaToya Smalls, mother of 11-year-old Raven Smalls.

Akerman said it's never a bad idea to learn good manners and to use them, even during the most trying times and difficult situations.

"It's about being at ease," she said. "It's about being self-confident in your surroundings."