It might just be every parent’s nightmare to see the glaze come over their children’s eyes and imagine the teacher’s voice from the “Peanuts” comic taking over when the conversation turns to the topic of manners.
When Dawn Jumper faced those blank looks in broaching the subject of eye contact and a confident handshake, she took matters into her own hands.
The mother of three teenagers headed back to school—the Etiquette and Leadership Institute in Athens, Ga., to be specific—launched her own business, the Etiquette Company, in 2010 and is now teaching her second Cotillion Club class at the Signal Mountain Arts Community Center.
“I read a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that said the average American teenager spends seven and a half hours in front of a screen—whether that’s a phone or a computer or an iPad,” Jumper said, referring to the 2010 study that revealed 8- to 18-year-olds’ daily user habits of entertainment media.
“That’s seven hours that they aren’t face-to-face having a conversation with someone,” she said. “They’re missing out on a really critical area of development of social skills.”
More than the basics
In her own job as a parent, Jumper found she wanted to impart the importance of manners along with the practicals of doing homework and taking out the trash.
She discovered the Etiquette and Leadership Institute through her own research. The school, which was established in 1985, specializes not only in directly educating young people, but also training adults who then return to their own communities to work with children and adolescents.
The Athens-based company provided Jumper with pointers about the content and delivery of her etiquette education, including the how-tos of getting past the “Peanuts” teacher voice. After 40 hours of coursework, she became a certified etiquette consultant.
Jumper’s business offers after-school programs and camps through private and religious schools—such as Baylor, Girls Preparatory School, Bright, St. Nicholas and Brainerd Baptist—and workshops at conferences—such as the Future Business Leaders of America’s national convention, as well as courses like the Cotillion Club.
She primarily teaches students 18 years old and younger but will occasionally work with college students. Her area of expertise ranges from thank you notes and RSVPs to first impressions and table manners.
“[The students usually] come because they’re pushed by Mom or Dad, but by the end of the series of the classes, I can see their wheels turning,” Jumper said. “They understand that time that they spent was really an investment in themselves and making themselves a better person.”
The key to that light bulb trick is in the formatting of the classes. Students are not subjected to a series of lectures. Instead, Jumper has them up and about, interacting with each other and practicing the skills in real-life situations.
The last 20 minutes of each Cotillion Club is spent learning dances like the Electric Slide and the Cupid Shuffle. Jumper promises the students she will not force them to endure the horror of partner dancing.
“Other cotillion classes have been known to be not as fun, but I actually like this one,” said Will Sutton, who is a seventh-grader at Signal Mountain Middle High School. “It’s more creative.”
For a more-refined Sunday afternoon
Held for an hour and a half every Sunday for five weeks and catering to sixth- to eighth-graders, the Cotillion Club covers the core principles of Jumper’s teaching: the seven ingredients of great introductions and the "fab four."
The former refers to all the moving elements of face-to-face interactions, including eye contact, body language, a warm smile and a confident speaking voice. The latter highlights the oft-forgotten power of using “please,” “excuse me,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”
The weekly lessons also involve how to introduce yourself, how to introduce others and how to act in public places.
Jumper sets up a mock Starbucks counter, allowing students to practice the dos and don’ts of interacting with service industry professionals.
The class also divides into groups to work through a hands-on exercise about first impressions. Jumper gives the students a worksheet and a stack of pictures of people in varying ages, dress and postures and with varying facial expressions.
The students take a quick glance at the pictures, one at a time, and jot down the first adjective that comes to mind. The group then analyzes why students described one person as “trustworthy” while another seemed “goofy” and discusses how the students can avoid the mistakes or replicate the successes.
Finally, Jumper also uses a small snack to illustrate the finer points of dining etiquette.
Parents are invited to attend the last class—though Jumper keeps them abreast of progress via weekly emails—for the only partnering dance in the class.
In addition to dance instructor Laura Keys, Jumper brings in former students to act as members for the current students in the Cotillion Club.
“We’re just raised on electronics. No one knows how to have a conversation and introduce themselves,” said Caroline Wolf, a sophomore at Baylor. “This class is fun. We play games that reinforce the skills we learn.”
Wolf, who has worked with the etiquette consultant in several capacities, explained that after taking the courses, she had an increased level of confidence in herself.
When asked about the view some might take on the Cotillion Club—that it hails from a classist and antiquated tradition—Jumper noted that she hasn’t encountered such a perspective.
However, she said that might be because those who hold that view are being polite and not sharing it with her.
For her, the course, as well as her training in the schools and through the workshops, is as much about the professional world as it is about social graces and the edge it provides students.
“I really believe that the social skills of knowing how to introduce yourself and being confident at the dining table, knowing how to make polite conversation with new acquaintance—these are all skills that are going to become more and more rare in the future,” Jumper said. “So these are skills that are going to make a young person more desirable in the job market.”
Updated @ 9:51 a.m. on 3/1/13 to correct some typographical errors and content problems.