Date With a Manners Maven
Reporter's etiquette is on the table when taking Letitia Baldrige to dine
Tonight I have a dinner date with a sophisticated older woman - who will be grading me on my manners.Skip to next paragraph
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She is Letitia Baldrige, former White House social secretary to Jackie Kennedy; author of 14 books on etiquette, and a maven of American manners.
Her latest book, "In the Kennedy Style" (Doubleday, $29.95), gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Kennedy White House entertaining.
Understandably, I'm shaking in my worn (but impeccably polished) Oxford saddle shoes. And my dear mother's endless lectures on manners are racing through my head. "Now, John Boy, keep your elbows off the table. Stop slouching. Don't talk with your mouth full. And don't ever order corn on the cob at a nice restaurant."
As Mrs. Baldrige steps from the elevator, I can't help wondering how many times I will unknowingly offend. You see, like any good Southern boy, I was taught the importance of good manners. I just forgot them when I went to college north of the Mason-Dixon line.
While exchanging salutations with Mrs. Baldrige, I get lesson No. 1. "When shaking hands, the man always waits for the woman to extend her hand first," she says, in response to my first question.
"Will Chez McDonald's be all right this evening? I hear their four-course Happy Meal is exquisite," I ask politely, with a straight face.
After a pause that seems to stretch into eternity, she smiles and laughs. "Humor always breaks the ice," she says, sensing my nervousness and quickly putting me at ease.
"So, you want to talk about manners?" she asks rhetorically. "Good manners are almost nonexistent in our society. We've forgotten basic table manners. We're rude to each other. We don't communicate well. It's like we've developed an 'I don't care attitude.' People don't care how they represent themselves."
She and I stroll into a restaurant in one of Boston's finest hotels - she looks as regal as a queen and I feel as humble as Jethro from the "Beverly Hillbillies" - I realize that I better take good notes, not only for this story but for my own benefit.
"People think manners are elitist. They simply aren't," says Mrs. Baldrige, as our waitress escorts us to a cozy booth in the corner. "Etiquette is a code of behavior that helps people get along with one another. It's 50 percent common sense and 50 percent thinking about someone else."
Mrs. Baldrige believes that good manners went out of style during the 1960s - "Customs were turned upside down back then." However, she insists, they're making a comeback. "I'm seeing some encouraging things. Young people like you are becoming more and more interested in etiquette. They are realizing that manners are not something to scoff at, but a useful tool - especially in the workplace."
As she slices into her porterhouse steak, I offer her a taste of my sun-dried tomato pasta, hoping she will reciprocate. She declines my generous offer, but I land a large, juicy hunk of her steak.
Oh no, I realize that I'm not using my knife and fork properly. I'm clutching them tightly, stabbing at my food rather than holding them easily. Mrs. Baldrige notices, too.