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Tips

Here is a list of common questions about manners, etiquette, and social skills. Some of these have been submitted directly to us through our contact us links, and others have been gleaned from information that readers have shared with us about how they found our site. Others are the "tried and true" questions that come up again and again, like how do you do introductions properly?

We will continue to add to this list of questions, so if you have one we haven’t answered, by all means email us! Our goal is to provide valuable resources to anyone who wants to teach, learn, or improve their social skills. We hope you find this list of tips valuable.

RSVPs

Thank You Notes

Best Ways to Reinforce Good Manners

Best Age to Teach Good Manners

Introductions

Best Starting Point for Good Manners

What is an RSVP and what do we do about it?

We won’t bore you with the French translation (which is where RSVP comes from) but it means that the person who is inviting you would like you to let them know whether or not you are coming. This is one of the easiest things to do, yet it is one of the most overlooked.

Trust us, from a host’s or hostess’ standpoint, there is nothing more frustrating than not knowing how many people to expect for a given function. Just think about it: if you were the one responsible for providing refreshments, would you like to know whether you had to buy food and drinks for 20 or 200!

We know of one couple who planned an elaborate wine tasting party, and received NO RSVPs from any of the invited guests. When the day of the party came, they went out to dinner instead. And, on their way home, they found one of their "guests" circling the driveway, wondering what had happened to the party. You can be HE never forgets to RSVP anymore!

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What are my obligations once I have said I’m attending a function I’ve been invited to?

Once you have accepted an invitation, you better have a really good reason for not showing up. Acceptable reasons are really limited: communicable diseases, illness or death in the family, car or other vehicular failure. You have to remember that when you accepted the invitation, your host or hostess added you to the list of people who needed to be fed, watered, and otherwise entertained. If you back out at the last minute, there will not only be leftovers, but there may be some really interesting people you have missed on meeting.

Should you really need to cancel at the last minute, do the decent thing and call the person who invited you. Just try to put yourself in your host’s or hostess’s shoes: how would you feel if a special guest (and, yes, consider yourself special if you’ve received an invitation) agreed to show up and then just decided to be a no-show. Some restaurants charge for no-shows – that should give you an idea of the impact of people who just decide to blow off a function.

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When are thank you notes appropriate and how old should children be before they should be expected to write them?

As soon as a child is old enough to hold a crayon in their hand, they are old enough to “write” thank you notes. And, they should be encouraged to do so as early as possible to help ensure it becomes a habit.

So, what should you expect of your child in the way of thank you notes? A child of two or three can scribble on a piece of paper or a blank notecard with a crayon or color pencil, add stickers or a fingerprint to a note that mom or dad writes (and reads to the toddler after it is written). A slightly older child can add a printed “signature” of their name. As your child gets older, they can take more responsibility for the contents of the note, telling the giver how much a gift (or an event) was appreciated, how it might be used, and so on. When you take a little time and include some information about how this particular gift is appreciated, people know you’ve taken the time to think about them, and aren’t just rattling off a Dear form letter (as many people do!).

But, most people are not clear on when a thank you note should be written. The rules are basically this: ALWAYS when the giver is not there to be thanked in person. And, it’s a good idea to have kids write thank you notes to people that attended their party – thanking them for coming, not just the gift – even if they've already thanked them at the event. If someone has done something especially nice for you, a note thanking them for their generosity or thoughtfulness is completely appropriate. It’s very difficult to be overly appreciative, so consider this: when in doubt, write it out!

Oh, and one little detail: thank you notes, like most invitations, should be mailed. US mail is best; email thank you’s, while popular, generally lack the personal touch that makes a thank you so special. We spend so little time thinking of the other people in our world around us – let's wow to give them at least a little more of our attention and really show them that we care that they cared!

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What’s the best way to make sure my kids actually use the manners we’re trying to develop?

Most important tip: use them yourself! Actions do speak louder than words, and you’ll make a much more powerful statement if you lead by positive example.

The next thing we would suggest is that you focus on only one new concept or behavior at a time. If you decide that for now, you want to make sure that the family works on basic courtesy, for example, then perhaps you’ll want to do that by enforcing “please” and “thank you,” “excuse me,” and so forth are used with each other. Don’t try to roll in other behaviors until the ones you are focusing on are well entrenched.

And, the best thing you can do to reinforce them is to comment positively when your kids use them! You’ll go a lot farther by saying, “I’ve been really impressed with how kind you’ve been to your sister this week,” than to continually harp on how big brother has NO been using the good manners you want. There’s an added side-benefit, too: you’ll feel better because you will be getting off the negative bandwagon, and won’t find yourself in the role of the “Manners Police.” So, think positive: catch your kids “doing right” instead of doing wrong.

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What is the best age to start teaching good manners?

Ideally, good social skills and manners should be taught like any other skill like speaking, reading, writing, etc. That means, you “start” teaching them as soon as they are born. There’s nothing weird about using “please” with an infant when you want her to give you a toy, and “thank you” when you’ve done it. If you say it pleasantly, you’re also reinforcing her skill, not just her manners. If the children grow up in a household where respect, kindness, self-control and other “virtues” are valued, they will acquire those skills naturally as part of their growing up. I mean, a child who lives in a foreign country but is exclusively exposed to his family’s native language will learn to speak in that language before he learns to speak the language of where he lives. Manners are no different.

Now, that’s not to say that children are capable of learning all the skills at any age. A toddler that can barely scoop food with a spoon is definitely too young to learn to properly wield a fork and knife in the Continental style. But, it’s not too early to teach him to put a napkin in his lap and to try to remember to wait until his mouth is empty before he speaks.

But, one mistake parents often make is to underestimate their children’s capabilities, and readiness, for learning new manners skills. You can always try to work on a more advanced skill; if it doesn’t seem to be comfortable after a few tries, perhaps it’s better to wait until your child is a little older.

And, fortunately, it’s never too late to improve your social skills either. While it may take more time for an older child, or even and adult, to unlearn some established manners, it’s not impossible, given enough motivation, time, patience, and practice. You can teach an old dog new tricks, regardless of what they say!

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I can never remember who is supposed to be introduced first. Can you help?

The basic rules of introduction are not really that difficult. In essence the rule can be brought down to this:

Introduce the more important person first.

What does this mean in practice? It means that if you are introducing a new friend to a parent, you would say:

“Mom, I’d like you to meet Jacob. Jacob, this is my mom, Mrs. Stewart.”

“Your Highness, this is my boss, Mr. Walsh. Robert, this is Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II.”

And, “most important” can be contextual. The President of the United States may be “more important” in some cases than the Prime Minister of England, even though they are both “peers” as heads of state. A parent may be “more important” than a teacher, depending on whether the teacher is the “honored guest” in the home, or the parent is the “honored guest” in the classroom.

In any case, when you do the introduction, make sure to use the full names of each party to be introduced or what they would like to be called, and it’s often helpful if you add something about the people to be introduced. If you are doing the introductions, think of yourself as the “glue” and your job is to get these people who are not known to each other “connected.” If you can give one or two details about either your relationship or something interesting about them, you help the two “unknowns” to relate to one another if they need to start a conversation. For example,

“Mr. Dawson, this is Sheila Long. Sheila is the owner of the gallery on First Street. Sheila, I’d like you to meet my soccer coach, Mr. Dawson. He is a big art collector and a special fan of Salvador Dali.”

Now, by doing the introduction this way, you’ve given both parties something that connects them, and they also know how you know them. If you need to leave right after the introduction, you’ve given them some facts on which to anchor a conversation.

Before launching into a big “intro-fest,” we do recommend that you practice it on people you are comfortable with. Awkward introductions are uncomfortable to all parties involved, so the smoother you can be, the more relaxed everyone else will be.

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Where should I start in teaching my child to have good social skills and manners?

It may sound simplistic to say this, but it’s true: start with the basics. And, depending on your present level of social skills, that may mean to work on the underlying foundations, not just the behaviors themselves. We advocate using The Golden Rule – “treat others the way you want THEM to treat YOU” – as your cornerstone. There is nothing in the world of social skills, manners, or etiquette that contradicts the Golden Rule, and it is “safe” from the perspective is that it is a universal rule, not restricted to any culture, religion, or gender.

We stress that it’s important to make sure the foundations are set because teaching only behaviors, as so many finishing or charm schools frequently do, puts children at a disadvantage when they come across a new or different situation that they have not specifically been trained in.

As an example, if you’ve learned all the “rules” for how to eat at a formal table, which utensils are for what, and here’s when you use them, what do you do if your hostess obviously uses the wrong fork or spoon? Is it better to stick with the “rules” you’ve taught, even if it may result in embarrassment for your hostess and maybe even her guests, or do you “go with the flow” and use the wrong utensil, too? If you use the Golden Rule, you’ll probably decide to grab the wrong utensil, avoiding embarrassment, because that is the more courteous and gracious way, and you wouldn’t want anyone to embarrass you in a similar case.

After the foundations are set, then we’d suggest starting with the skills that are most likely going to be used: meeting and greeting, introductions, basic table manners and dining skills, starting and continuing a conversation with someone you don’t know, some of the common courtesies like giving your bus seat to someone elderly or compromised in some way. As those skills grow – and with it the child’s social confidence – you can add more advanced skills, making sure you continue to practice and reinforce the previous lessons.

Remember that the “finer” rules of etiquette – ultra-formal dining or how to book your “place” with a partner at a ballroom dance – are not going to be used by everyone. Not all of us will have a coming out party at the end of cotillion, for example. But, everyone can benefit strongly from mastery of basic social skills, and we all have room for improvement. I’ve never heard anyone complain that someone’s social skills or manners were “too good.”

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