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Manners Matter: Preparing Youth To Enter Tomorrow’s Workforce

Ami Neiberger

Vickie Mullins, (850) 623-3868
Joy Jordan (352) 846-1000

practicing putting on a tie
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MILTON, Fla.—Breathe a sigh of relief, Miss Manners, good etiquette is coming back into fashion.

A new program organized by 4-H youth educators from the University of Florida aims to teach teens that using the right fork, writing thank-you notes and dressing professionally really do count in the business world they’ll soon be entering.

Unfortunately, organizers say, the manic pace of modern American society has left many young people with no knowledge of etiquette and, frequently, no where to learn it.

“People nowadays simply do not have the social graces,” said Vickie Mullins, Santa Rosa County 4-H agent. “But how you conduct yourself matters a lot — whether you are in a board room, visiting a friend, at a restaurant or working in an office. It can determine if you will succeed in life.”

The program, under UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is in its infancy, and organizers say they need funding to expand it statewide as they’d like to. But a weekend retreat that included a formal dinner already has been held, they say, and more projects are in the works.

Corporate etiquette consultant Peggy Newfield, founder of Personal Best in Atlanta, said many college graduates, even those with MBAs from prestigious schools, do not have the basic etiquette skills needed to function in the business world.

She said ignorance of basic manners can spell disaster in the business world. “Serious business has always been conducted over meals,” she said. “Sharing lunch or dinner together can cement or crumble a business relationship. Someone who makes blatant dining errors is noticed immediately.”

Corporations are spending mega-bucks on consultants to bring new executives up to speed. A one-day group seminar for 15 people with Newfield costs $450 per person, and one-on-one training can be as much as $5,000 per day.

That’s where the UF program could help save money in the long run, organizers say.

“We want to get them ready for the world of work early,” said Damon Miller, UF assistant dean for 4-H youth development programs. “It’s cheaper to teach them these things now than later.”

UF youth development experts say today’s generation — reared on fast food, microwaved popcorn and frozen dinners — is coming up short in basic etiquette.

“With today’s hectic pace and both parents working, there is not much time spent around the dinner table, which is where kids used to learn these things,” said Joy Jordan, associate professor in UF’s department of family, youth and community sciences.

“Kids don’t learn these skills by themselves,” said Jordan. “This is not something that can be inherited like intelligence, or that comes naturally as they grow older. It must be taught.”

The idea for the program started when Suzanne Wilson, a Holmes County 4-H agent, took some 4-H kids out for dinner on a trip to Louisiana last summer. She found the teens were not confident managing a place setting beyond the basic three pieces of silverware.

The program’s first event, a retreat, was held in mid-January at the Whiting Field Naval Air Station near Milton, and more than 100 teens attended. Even those who thought they had their manners down pat found that a little practice can’t hurt.

“The dining workshop was a refresher course for me,” said Erin Brooks, 17, of Bonifay, a small town in north Florida. “The business etiquette workshop was the most useful. I’ve never had a job, and I didn’t know that employers would be interested in those kinds of things.”

The retreat wrapped up with a formal dinner featuring evening dresses, suit jackets and a five-course meal. A casual observer at the naval station officer’s club might have expected to find upper-crust debutantes, but in reality more than half of the youth attending the event live at or below the poverty line, according to UF organizers.

“I love getting dressed up,” said Brooks, who wore a floor-length black evening gown to the Saturday night dinner.

However, not everyone relished it.

“Getting dressed up is hard work,” said 14 year-old Josh Longo, also from Bonifay, who thought his tie and pressed shirt took plenty of effort. He said other kids corrected him at dinner for putting his elbows on the table. Despite the faux paus, the eighth-grader was so proud of his newly acquired table-setting skills that he planned to demonstrate them to his family at home.

The program received a grant from the Florida 4-H Foundation to offset expenses. Youngsters paid only $10 out of their own pockets to attend the weekend retreat. Without the grant, Mullins said, they wouldn’t have been able to include half as many kids.