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In the era of Honey Boo Boo, the well-mannered child doesn’t appear to be especially prized by the zeitgeist. Nevertheless, on a recent Sunday, Taylor and Jamie are among 10 children who have gathered at Tabula Rasa, an event space on Barracks Row, to practice their how-do-you-dos.
“How are you?” Taylor says to another girl. Jamie then enters the conversation, asking Taylor what her favorite color is. “Blue,” she says. “Me too!” Jamie says. “Do you—what do you like?”
Across the room, Adam asks his brother Tim for his name. “I already know you,” Tim says. “I know, it’s practice,” Adam hisses back.
Presiding over the make-believe cocktail chatter is upmarket Washington’s own Miss Manners—Miss Crystal, who with her dark florals and tasteful jewels appears to be dressed for a wintry garden party. The children’s parents have disappeared for coffee and errands around Capitol Hill. For the next two hours, their offspring are entrusted to the Etiquette Institute, which today has promised a $75 crash course in the art of good manners.
Among adults, Miss Crystal is known as Crystal Bailey, a 29-year-old Department of Justice employee who describes herself as “passionate about etiquette.” She began the Etiquette Institute a year ago to teach the offspring of affluent parents about the ins and outs of first impressions, table manners, and netiquette. Traditionally, etiquette instructors find work in the world of society functions and beauty pageants—Bailey herself has several crowns to her name, including Miss Black Virginia 2009, in addition to her undergraduate and law degrees from Howard and William & Mary—but the Etiquette Institute appeals to a somewhat more normalized, if often just as affluent, clientele. “I can’t say there’s a typical customer,” Bailey says.
Bailey’s company is hardly the first etiquette entity to operate here. The Protocol School of Washington, which caters to the business class, opened in 1988, and Capital Cotillion has been instructing kids in ballroom dancing and society manners for 13 years. The infamous Mrs. Simpson’s cotillion class has been operating for years—it’s invitation-only and has no Web presence, except for occasional arguments on the DC Urban Moms and Dads message board about whether the class is fascist or merely elitist. According to a 2008 Washingtonian article, Mrs. Simspon’s, which was once the subject of a civil-rights complaint in D.C. for its allegedly discriminatory practices, doesn’t allow its students’ mothers to wear pants.
You won’t learn how to curtsy from the Etiquette Institute. Instead, Bailey is concerned with the finer points of modern courtesy. She conducts most of her lessons at private homes, where parents arrange for her to instruct their kids in daily niceties like table setting and answering the phone properly. The Etiquette Institute has also begun hosting workshops like the one on Barrack’s Row.
“My kids are not pageant kids,” says Karla Bailey (no relation), a cardiovascular researcher who hired the Etiquette Institute for in-home lessons for three of her children at her Laurel home. “We just want to make sure we’re raising children who are well-mannered.” Whereas Capital Cotillion might cover how a young man should ask a girl to a dance and how to waltz, Bailey was seeking a “character-building,” less anachronistic experience for her kids.
Another client, Marianne Beardall, who used to work in marketing and now stays home with her four children in Potomac, hoped an etiquette class would reinforce the manners she’d taught her kids and give them a few new tricks. Beardall paid $125 for two hours of private lessons for her three eldest, mostly because she wanted them to be able to interact appropriately with adults—“not to be skittish and scared of them,” she says. Her husband, who works in banking, occasionally has colleagues over, and Beardall wants to make sure her kids can give them a “nice firm handshake.” “I don’t want, if someone asks them a question, for them to just say, ‘yes,’ and turn around and walk away,” she says.
But even parents looking for a more down-to-earth etiquette experience aren’t totally removed from a particular strain of high-achieving parenting that persists in upper-middle-class Washington—there’s always the hope that should junior bump into a senator, he’ll know how to handle introductions and make good eye contact. “You never know who they’re going to run into,” Beardall says.
* * *
Before the kids at the latest Etiquette Institute workshop can bump into Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on the Metro and impress him with their handshakes, they have to get through two hours with Miss Crystal.
Bailey warms up her students with pink lemonade and some questions, starting with how they feel about attending an etiquette class.
“Well, I was kind of nervous,” says second-grader Greg. (Names have been changed to protect the ill-mannered.) “And I also had a question. Are we going to be able to go outside?” Greg also asks if the space has a recycling bin for his pink lemonade cup. The answer to both questions is no.
Nevertheless, Miss Crystal promises a fun and informative afternoon and says that everyone will get to leave with a potted plant. “How much water does it need?” Greg wants to know. (She says that will be covered later.) “Do they come with seed packets?” asks Christopher. (Yes.)
Miss Crystal covers a few basics, including the Golden Rule, before moving on to first impressions. She asks the class why good grooming is important.
“People don’t really like to be friends with slobs,” answers Angelica, who had walked in wearing a matching cape and skirt.
The kids then practice shaking hands and making conversation. Jamie, age six, takes the opportunity to get more pink lemonade. “Jamie,” Miss Crystal says, “how many is that?”
“This is my third,” answers Jamie, who has already been to the bathroom several times.
“OK, we’re going to take a pause on the punch,” Miss Crystal announces.
The class moves on to body language. Miss Crystal explains why pointing is rude and models different behaviors while the students shout out guesses as to what her mood is.
She rolls her eyes. (“Bored!”) She shrugs. (“Nonchalant.”) She puts her hands on her hips. (“Sassy!”)
The kids take turns demonstrating body language for their peers. Christopher makes an exaggerated yawn for the class.
“Sleepy!” everyone shouts in unison.
“I get sleepy in church,” Raoul, a second-grader, says.
“I hope you’re not sleepy in here,” Miss Crystal says.
“I am,” offers Greg.
Class hits the one-hour mark, and a few attention spans seem to be waning. More than one pupil in a rolling chair is asked if he needs to be seated in a regular chair. Adam and Tim get caught drawing on a table.
“Who decided to draw on the table?” Miss Crystal asks.
“You!” Adam points at Tim.
“What did we learn about finger-pointing?” Miss Crystal admonishes.
Miss Crystal gets class back on track with a segment on phone and computer etiquette.
“Who has used a cell phone?” All hands go up. “What about a computer?”
“I have my own,” Greg informs her.
Miss Crystal continues. “You younger students probably don’t have your own phones—”
“I do!” two of them interrupt her.
Jamie gets up and helps himself to his fourth glass of pink lemonade. He downs it and takes the cup to the trash. “You have a fancy trash can,” he says.
The perfect posture learned in the first hour has turned into tired slumps by the time class gets through netiquette and travel etiquette, but Miss Crystal shakes things up with some table-setting. Everyone gets up to get a napkin, and Miss Crystal demonstrates an ice cream cone fold. Taylor, age six, immediately puts her napkin on her head.
Adam and Tim, who have been whispering about the relative talents of various NBA stars for the past 15 minutes, distinguish themselves by demonstrating an uncommonly strong knowledge of informal table-setting. (“I have to set the table at home,” Adam explains.) They also prove comfortable with both the continental and American styles of eating, concepts that seem to elude some of their classmates.
Miss Crystal shows some struggling children how to hold a spoon during a soup course. “Hold it like a pencil,” she says.
That doesn’t work for Raoul. “I hold pencils in a weird way,” he says. “It’s called the artist’s grip.”
“My dad once said a word with food in his mouth,” Taylor says, apropos of nothing. “And the food fell out.”
In the waning moments of classtime, Miss Crystal covers how to say a few polite phrases in Spanish, French, and sign language. She makes the sign for “please.”
“That’s ‘sorry,’” interjects Greg.
“Please,” Miss Crystal says again.
“I think that’s ‘sorry,’” repeats a skeptical Greg.
Sign-language disputes notwithstanding, the workshop wraps with grace. Parents show up to collect their newly mannered children. Anya, 12, goes over the class’ highlights with her father. “I learned how to fold a napkin,” she says with enthusiasm. “It was so pretty.”
Raoul demonstrates his handshake. “Good eye contact,” dad says.
Illustration by Carey Jordan