Manners counterrevolution

Do you subscribe to the ''Me Generation'' doctrine of informal, au naturel behavior? Is etiquette, to you, a stuffy Victorian manner better left to the idle rich?

Try explaining that to your hostess when you spoon up a mouthful from your finger bowl, or plunge into the hearts of romaine on your neighbor's salad plate.

The whole social spectrum is littered with casualties of the ''civil'' war which brought infractions of etiquette to an all-time high during the past decade. Rude behavior - intentional as well as not - is rampant, say those schooled enough to know. But then, it doesn't take a degree in couth to recognize the abuse gentility has taken from the effects of fast-food dining or the sharklike manners encountered in everyday social situations.

The collective shudder of the victims of rudeness appears to have sparked a counterrevolution in good behavior.

''I'm desperately campaigning for good manners because I can't tolerate institutional rudeness. . . . You can hardly get through an ordinary day without hearing someone yell at you, clerks in stores turning their backs on you,'' says Judith Martin, a Washington Post reporter whose syndicated ''Miss Manners'' combines an arched eyebrow of hautiness with a tongue-in-cheek approach.

''Being completely natural, of course, is not polite,'' she advises. ''Two-year-olds eat naturally, and that's not polite.''

She suggests that if people were more concerned about everyday good manners - which are courtesies for the benefit of others - the movement might have a ripple effect through society (with armed conflict being the ultimate rudeness squelched).

''It certainly would be a radical change if people worried about others,'' she sniffs. ''It's not trivial.''

Her ''desperate'' campaign has a loyal following that has made her $20, three-pound volume, ''Miss Manners's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior,'' a national best seller. The book is a collection of practical questions from readers, answered with contemporary civility by Ms. Martin, who suggests a reporter has committed the ultimate faux pas by asking if readers really write the humorous questions she gets.

Other manners mavens, whose advice was about as long on popularity during the '60s and '70s as the crew cut, are jumping (with grace, of course) on America's bandwagon of self-improvement. Capitalizing on their ''correct'' answers to everything from disposing of an olive pit to handling a saucy sales clerk, they are appearing on talk shows and offering courses to everyone from kindergartners to corporate executives (many courses have waiting lists). Besides Miss Manners's book, two new teen etiquette books were published within weeks of each other this fall.

Today's etiquette doesn't have the militaristic starch of the Emily Post era. Instead, manners experts view etiquette simply as a code that allows a person the comfort of knowing what's expected of him socially rather than having to guess. The code is not set in stone, even the most purse-lipped experts agree. With the correct tutoring in social graces, you can still eat your eight-course meals at home with a single stainless steel fork while you keep from embarrassing yourself on that big business lunch at a swank restaurant.

''It may sound awfully snobbish but it's realistic. . . . Someone may say, 'Who cares how you get your food in your mouth?' but there are a whole bunch of people out there who do care,'' says Ann Sargent, director of special events at Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel, which played host to a children's course in etiquette this fall.

It's not snobbish at all to Jon Ellison, who thinks proper manners are just plain good business sense. ''When one mistake can cost you the rapport of a company . . . (I want my staff) to know what's expected rather than what they think is expected,'' says the sales manager for two Grand Rapids, Mich., radio stations. He wants his staff to have a competitive edge and is watching the development of a proposed ''protocol'' course being designed at a nearby corporation in connection with Marjabelle Stewart, a longtime manners expert.

"Let's say you were going to be interviewed for a job at a prestigious law firm,'' hypothesizes Gordon Sinclair, a Chicago restaurateur. If you go to an elegant restaurant and don't know what to do, he says, ''You're probably going to be uncomfortable and self-conscious, and that could disempower you.'' Mr. Sinclair started thinking about offering nationwide workshops after two $30 courses he offered in restaurant etiquette sold out recently.

Judi Kaufman, whose Los Angeles consulting firm, Communications Development Associates, offers a ''Good Taste is Good Business'' course to corporate executives, confirms Mr. Sinclair's approach. ''I know a person who lost an offer for a $300,000 job to head up an insurance corporation because he ordered turbot medium rare. After that, they felt he just wasn't being honest about himself.''

While the Me Generation now must take a crash course in manners, having played etiquette hooky, a whole new generation is starting off on a more appropriate footing. Marjabelle Stewart says her White Gloves and Party Manners franchises, which offer six-week etiquette courses to youngsters, had dwindled to 60 during the unmannered 1960s. (''If it hadn't been for the South,'' she confides, ''I'd have gone bankrupt. They'd rather give up food than manners.'') But, she adds, she now has 480 franchises in the US - half of them appearing in the past two years.

So what's the appeal?

Ms. Stewart, whose philosophy most certainly would have invited the wrath of feminists a decade ago, says good manners are in line with the nation's conservative turn.

''The influence of Lady Di and Prince Charles as a loving couple, and the Reagans, showing it's OK to escort your loved one and that macho behavior is out ,'' she says, are inspiring a return to close family ties and more courteous behavior.

Ronald Reagan can even tell someone to ''shut up'' with taste, she says, adding that ''he always softens what he says, he's such an example of control.'' (When Mr. Reagan was heckled by a maverick candidate during a talk with Republican hopefuls before the recent election, the President did say, ''Shut up.'')

''I would guess that there's more civility today because of the somewhat conservative environment,'' says Ray Robinson, executive editor of Seventeen magazine, which published excerpts from Judith Martin's book this fall. But he also notes that the new emphasis on etiquette may simply be a middle-class phenomenon. Ms. Martin says the movement is a general return to the hospitality that should emanate from the home. ''The whole warm feeling had kind of turned sour,'' she says, apologizing for her mixed metaphor.

Further, on the conservative theory, Ms. Stewart says that ''everyone wants to have the manners of Bill Buckley.'' But the manners of Captain Kangaroo would probably suffice for most parents who send their children to learn to correctly sit, walk, talk, and eat at Ms. Stewart's six-session White Gloves and Party Manners courses.

''Phone manners was the main reason'' Alice Maro sent her seven-year-old son, Jason, to etiquette class, she says. ''He wasn't too polite and didn't give me my messages,'' she explains. ''Also, he had bad table manners - like eating without utensils. . . . When we go out to dinner we wanted him to act more grown up.''

The Silver Spoon etiquette class, a Chicago-area course offered by Paula Person, was all it took to set Jason straight, his mother says. ''Even his teachers noticed the difference. Now he opens doors for ladies - grown-up ladies; he doesn't like the little ones yet.''

Asked what he learned, the Glenview, Ill., second-grader says, ''I learned to walk and have a smile on my face and I hold my fork with my index finger and thumb.'' Asked what he liked best about the course, he says, ''The party where you get to serve punch.''

None of this moves Jason's 10-year-old sister, Christine, who has been told she must take the course. She protests, ''I don't want to take the course, I know which fork to use and how to answer the phone.''

Perhaps this little voice of dissent will be drowned out in the bubbly cordiality of the time. But Christine is exactly the target of someone like Judith Martin, who explains that ''the worst cases (of rudeness) are not the people who want to sign up for manners courses.'' She says her column attempts to draw converts to good manners through humor - winning over those who might never pick up an etiquette book or take a manners course.

As for other skeptics, etiquette experts point to that one moment, that once-in-a-lifetime social show-stopper, that could lurk just around the corner. Just because you're willing to suffer the discomfort of a social gaffe, they suggest, doesn't mean others want to share the discomfort with you.

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