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‘Money doesn’t buy culture and good manners’

<i> Times staff writer</i>

Sylvia Selby grew up in Carlsbad but spent 14 years in England. On frequent trips back to this country, she couldn’t help but notice that her child seemed so much more mannered than her counterparts in the United States. When American parents began asking for her help teaching etiquette to their children, she knew it was more than parental pride that she saw in her daughter. Now she teaches etiquette classes, including an occasional tea lesson at The Inn L’Auberge in Del Mar. She graduated more than 60 students last year. Selby was interviewed by Times staff writer G. Jeanette Avent and photographed by Vince Compagnone.

I think the word etiquette frightens people. But I really think that good manners is a matter of making everyone around you feel comfortable and being polite and kind to one another.

Table manners, saying “please,” “thank you” and “good morning,” and shaking hands with a smile are not just rituals. These things are important. It’s a way of living life.

I have taught adults, but I love kids. I started writing a children’s program and ended up with a 35-page notebook and a six-week class because, in our fast-paced society, children often don’t get the training they need to function in a social setting.

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I teach them with a gentle discipline, letting them know that I love them but I lay down the ground rules. I let them know they are guests in my home. They are there to learn but also to have a good time.

My students are all pretty much from affluent families. They come from all over--La Jolla, San Diego and Escondido. But money doesn’t buy culture and good manners. I had a 7-year-old girl who had never used a fork.

I had a good upbringing, but not because my family was rich. My mother and father had a very nice restaurant, but we were a working family. The five of us children were brought up to work hard. From the time we could walk, we were all pitching in and helping one another.

For my first class, I ask that the children come dressed up, the boys in coats and ties and the girls in nice dresses.

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I start out teaching and encouraging self-esteem and working on making a good first impression and doing introductions.

Also, with every class, I incorporate a different type of meal. The first lesson is a tea. I designate someone to be the hostess, and we have our tea and our little sandwiches and cakes.

Tea is a lovely time, and I’ve noticed it’s becoming more and more fashionable. It’s a time when people come together for nice conversation and to relax.

I don’t have strict rules about what the children talk about because it takes the fun out of it. I like for them to think for themselves. But we talk about the niceties of life. We don’t talk about Aunt Mabel dying of a heart attack last week or about somebody getting beaten up. We try to keep it nice and light.

The second week of class, we’ll have a soup lesson because how many people know how to drink soup? We also have a lesson on how to eat spaghetti. When we have Chinese food, we have chopsticks; there’s no silverware. We practice chopsticks by picking up jelly beans.

Our fifth class is a buffet, and then our graduation is always in a very nice restaurant. By this time, we’ve already gone through foods and how to order off a menu.

At the graduation, the parents are invited for dessert, coffee and tea, and that’s when we have our ceremony.

But the classes are more than just teaching children what fork to use. I really feel that, if you don’t know what to do, you can always learn by observing. I tell the children if they go to a dinner party and they don’t know exactly what to do, watch the hostess.

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But, in the classes, I also teach personal introductions, how to stand, how to enter and leave a room and how to shake hands. When we shake hands the little web between the thumb and the first finger should make contact, and we should have a firm grip. There should be eye contact and a smile. A nice, firm grip shows self confidence and tells the other person I’m really glad to know you.

In the classes, I’m concerned with building up their self-esteem while they’re young. I was brought up this way. I can remember my father saying, hold your head up high, and my mother saying, walk straight. We children all grew up that way, and we’re all just as confident as we can be.

One little girl who came to me was having problems in school. When children would treat her badly, she would cry a lot. She was so withdrawn. Her mother called me and said she didn’t know what to do. After the first lesson, the self-esteem lesson made such an impact on her that she was able to handle situations better instead of crying.

Etiquette is also about learning how to get along with people and how to respond when others are rude.

I tell children if people are rude to them perhaps that person is having a bad day, maybe they’re not feeling well, maybe they’ve had some bad news or maybe something terrible is happening in their life. So we have to forgive them for their rudeness. The children are better able to cope with rudeness rather than fighting back with anger.

I handle rudeness sometimes by apologizing to the person and saying, “I’m sorry you don’t feel well today. Maybe you should have stayed home. Maybe you shouldn’t be working today.” I sympathize with them.

When I started my etiquette classes, I thought it would be something to just while the hours away. But it has become a major project for me.

I feel like I’m contributing. In my own way, I’m teaching what I know and passing on good manners. It just makes life so much nicer.

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