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Where manners meet pigtails and freckles

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 2000



QUINCY, MASS.

Jacqueline Dugas is introducing her mother to Britney Spears.

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"Mom, this is Britney Spears," the seven-year-old says, her cheeks smeared with blue sparkles and her hair pulled into pigtails. "Um, Britney, this is my mom."

Britney (played by Jacqueline's best friend, Alexi) sticks out her hand as a group of neighborhood kids watch the mock introduction intently.

"Smile and be friendly, Jacqueline," instructs Judi Vankevich, known around town as "The Manners Lady." "Good job. What you just did is very difficult for about 90 percent of the population."

The children clap enthusiastically - a lesson they just learned in showing respect.

Welcome to manners for minors. Classes like Ms. Vankevich's are sprouting up all across America. These are not cotillions filled with curtsies and dance cards. They stress everyday manners, the ones once learned around the dinner table.

They tackle tough issues such as: What if someone gives you a birthday present you already have? Or how do you take a phone message if you don't know how to write? Or what if, tee hee, you accidentally burp during dinner?

"Nothing is more attractive than someone with good manners," says Jacqueline's mother, Caroline Dugas. Watching Vankevich in action, she says she might enroll her two daughters in the class full time.

"It does seem like manners have gone by the wayside, replaced by computer skills," Ms. Dugas says. "Kids today talk back to you, won't sit still, and just don't listen. It's like they won't behave unless they know they are going to be entertained or rewarded."

Parents bemoaning ill-mannered children is nothing new. But experts say the reality is that manners are on the decline - losing out to a world more concerned with productivity than politeness. Technology is not only making communication faster, it's changing the way we communicate.

A recent study of workplace civility by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that "rudeness and insensitivity toward others have proliferated to new heights of thoughtlessness."

A majority of the study's 700 respondents blame this trend on the fragmentation of workplace relationships, facilitated by technologies such as voice mail, e-mail, and teleconferencing. One manager, for example, said that "emerging technology takes away the human face - it's easy to 'flame' somebody you don't have to look at." Others said that work and information overload gives them less time for the polite "niceties" of business life.

Decline of social skills

This is the environment an entire generation is growing up in. As a result, many experts say today's children - the first raised online - are missing manners.

"The tenor of the times has dictated to parents that [manners] are not as important as they used to be," says Frank Vitro, a psychology professor at Texas Woman's University in Denton, and an expert in children's social skills. "Parents are more focused on fostering assertiveness and self-confidence in children. That's a very important dimension that needs to be nurtured in a child, but certainly not at the expense of also developing proper social skills and proper etiquette and manners."