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Sense and Sensibility

Roy Esaki

Like so many other students and faculty keenly interested in learning the social graces of our society, I invested an afternoon last Friday in the Stratton School for Charm, both as a student and a faculty member. Judging from the amount of public media interest (there was even a USA Today reporter at the event), there’s something intriguing about the premise of stereotypical, socially inept nerds taking classes like “Flirting 101.” The irony is a bit harsh, but as a whole, all of us, as MIT students and as members of a new generation of debutantes, could stand to benefit from being more conscientious about etiquette, manners, and societal protocols.

I’m not sure if the Charm degrees awarded can turn a college full of Steve Urkels into regular Rhett Butlers -- though I’m sure introducing oneself as a “certified Master of Charm” would make a pretty good pick-up line. Charm School was good for an afternoon of edutainment, but good manners and breeding arise from a constant self-awareness and desire to be more cognizant of one’s relation with society.

For the most part, one hardly needs formal education to be charming. Most of the concepts taught at the Charm School were plain common sense. Send thank you cards promptly. Close your mouth when you eat. Say please and thank you. Smile. Don’t spit in public. By the time we were six years old, we’d heard these rules thousands of times. It’s not hard to exercise good etiquette; just imagine yourself in the place of the person you’re interacting with, and think how you would react in their place. It’s just often difficult, especially for frazzled students, to remember to consider and appreciate the feelings and reactions of others.

To be sure, much of etiquette is comprised of arbitrary -- and arguably Eurocentric, sexist, and elitist -- rules and protocol. Knowing to use the utensils from the outside in is arbitrary but simple enough, but other rules, like cutting one piece of meat at a time, are quite inefficient and, I say, pointless. The iron-clad rule about looking at people in the eye when talking to them, lest you seem bored and disrespectful, always peeved me, as many Asian cultures would find such an act arrogant and insolent. True, when in Rome we must do as the Romans do, but in a culture that claims to appreciate diversity and sensitivity, more understanding should be given to people for whom averting one’s gaze is a natural sign of propriety.

Then, of course, there are those chauvinistic gender-specific rules. There’s nothing wrong with courtesy; I think that holding a door open, pulling out a chair for a woman, or even offering to pay for dinner is an appropriate thing to do, though some feminists who assert a woman’s freedom from such acts of patronage may disagree. Still, rules of conduct about how women should wear knee-length skirts to cater to conservative middle-aged interviewers, or how they should always be introduced to men because the person of inferior social status should be introduced to the superior, are downright senseless and upsetting. Etiquette, being developed from ages of traditions and customs of “proper society,” can unfortunately be relics of a not-so-bygone era of gender and status-based patronage.

A charming person, naturally, shouldn’t be a backwards-thinking, stuffy prude who snubs those who fail to adhere to the bourgeois code of conduct. Hopefully, as college students, we don’t have to be concerned about being social elitists, though we must be vigilant against intellectual snobbery as we interact with the rest of our community.

A charming person can’t dismiss all social norms and rules as arbitrary and conformist. We share a culture with the free-thinking Silicon valley hotshots, who are popularly known for their Nerfball-throwing, every-day-a-Casual-Friday atmosphere where you can call your boss “Steve.” That’s a valid standard of manners and etiquette in itself, but one should always remember that the rest of society doesn’t always share this laissez-faire code of manners. We may not mind if our classmates and coworkers interrupt conversations to answer their “FÜr Elise”-playing cell phones, but there are a lot more people out there who do mind, and the responsible thing to do is to respect that. That, and you’re always more charming in a tux.