Natalee Waters/The Roanoke Times
Kathleen Harvey Harshberger (center) shows Megan Coleman (left), and Ashlee McAlexander the proper way to butter pieces of bread during an etiquette course at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center on Saturday.

Sunday, February 03, 2002 
Students take a hands-on approach to business etiquette
Success at the dinner table

A four-hour crash course in etiquette in Roanoke helps prepare students for successful careers. 


   It might have looked as though the 13 students sitting around linen-topped tables at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center were just learning how to sip soup and hold their forks. 

    But the Saturday luncheon, which capped a four-hour etiquette crash course, was all about preparing these teens and preteens for successful academic and business careers. 

    "In this economy, corporations and companies simply are unwilling to pay $50,000-plus for people who don't have rudimentary dining skills," said Kathleen Harvey Harshberger , an etiquette consultant who spends most of her time counseling adults on the ins and outs of business manners. "None of this is rocket science. So if they haven't learned the basics of good manners, then what else haven't they bothered to learn?" 

    Students - or the parents who forced them to give up a Saturday morning to take the class - paid $150 each for the seminar. 

    Etiquette classes for young people are becoming more and more popular, said Harshberger, who held a similar class during the fall in Radford. Their generation was born into a fast-food culture, with lots of extracurricular activities and parents who work long hours. Family dinners, where children have traditionally learned manners, are rare occurrences in many households. 

    "People are not teaching this in the home or the school anymore," she said. "Parents and grandparents are very anxious for their children to have these skills." 

    Lorri Atwell's daughter, Leia , was a student in the class. 

    "She thought it was punishment that I made her come," said Atwell, who lives in Wytheville and attended one of Harshberger's adult classes several years ago. "I am on her all the time about table manners." 

    The students - nine girls and four boys, all between the ages of 10 and 15 - spent most of the morning learning how to make proper introductions and how to eat at a formal table. Both scenarios are fraught with potential perils - and neither can be avoided by anyone who needs to work for a living, Harshberger said. 

    Over the course of the morning, she touched on such age-old etiquette questions as how to shake hands and how to butter a dinner roll. 

    "Don't take so much! Not so much!" she cautioned 10-year-old Megan Coleman, who had loaded up her knife with most of a butter rosette. "Remember: Break off a tiny piece of bread, then put your knife back on your plate." 

    But she also gave the students thoroughly modern advice: how to properly record an answering machine message, how to compose e-mail messages and how to be a polite cellphone user. 

    "The smaller the cellphone, the louder people seem to want to talk into it," she said. "Have you noticed that?" 

    By the end of the seminar, after showing off their new introduction skills in front of an audience of parents, some of the students looked exhausted. 

    Lauren Coleman, Megan's 12-year-old sister, said her mother had enrolled her in the seminar against her will - but she figured she'd learned a few things. "I want to be a lawyer when I grow up, and she said it would help me in the long run," Lauren said. 

    John Crenshaw of New Castle, father of 11-year-old Kevin, said he wanted his son to have all the tools he needs to succeed in college and beyond. 

    "We live out in the country, and we live sort of a Spartan existence," Crenshaw said with a laugh. "You don't want to come across as an uncouth barbarian if you can help it." 

    Harshberger acknowledged to the students that manners might seem insignificant when compared to war and terrorism. 

    "You are not going to be hauled off to jail for not knowing some of the fine rules of etiquette," she said. "But people take you for what they perceive you to be. Is it fair? No. Is it true? It's true. ... You only have between five and 30 seconds to make a first impression." 

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