Adding social graces back into our society

Manners are the invisible rules by which any civilized society should operate.

Although “yes, please,” “no, thank you” and “excuse me” may seem like meaningless codes, they’re the oil in our social encounters, whether in personal relationships, politics or business.

But if you believe a recent Rasmussen report, such common courtesies are sorely missing in today's interactions.

We are, well, downright rude to each other.

“There is a protocol that’s missing today,” said Peggy Newfield, president and founder of the American School of Protocol. “You and I know that rudeness reigns.”

Indeed, according to the report, 77 percent of Americans think that their peers are becoming less civilized as time goes by.

Newfield, whose American School of Protocol is a division of Personal Best, the company she founded in 1980, believes she has the antidote.

The Sandy Springs-based company teaches etiquette — not just table manners — and cultural understanding to children, college students, entrepreneurs and business professionals.

With more millennials entering the workforce, corporate executives say the need for such training will only increase. Newfield estimates that she had trained more than a thousand corporate executives who then decide to send their young hires through the program to the tune of about 150 annually.

In addition, Newfield, a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization, an exclusive international group of women considered leaders in their industries, is sought out by those who want to start their own etiquette schools. The American School of Protocol’s certification programs are known worldwide for their hands-on depth of content and their teaching style. Her closest competitor is probably the Emily Post Institute.

After years of caring for her two children and being actively involved in her church and community, Newfield couldn’t help but notice a decline in social graces.

For instance, Newfield said that people weren’t speaking to each other, and if they walked through a door, they might slam it in the face of person behind them rather than hold it.

“My aunt asked me one day why don’t you teach etiquette,” she said recently before launching into a training seminar for six women interested in starting their own business.

And though she initially balked at the idea, Newfield said that when the school year began, she sent letters to the 400 families at Holy Innocents’ High School in Atlanta, where her children were enrolled.

“I got 60 responses and we were off and running,” she said.

Thus began Personal Best Inc. But what started three decades ago as an etiquette and social skills company for children in first through 12th grades has since grown into a school, teaching manners not just to children but to corporate executives and their employees.

The school’s one-day seminar, “Power, Presence & Style,” has become a personal favorite of local executives such as Carol Kerr and Bil Lako.

Kerr first attended in 1992 when she was serving as vice president of client services for a credit union software company in Atlanta. The company’s CEO, she said, wanted all executives and salespeople to master the art of conversation, fine dining, appropriate business attire, and effective communication.

“The course we took over 20 years ago added a new level of professionalism to all of us,” Kerr said. “It was such a powerful thing for me professionally and personally.”

Although now with Member Driven Technologies, headquartered in Michigan, she has since recommended her new organization expose all of its employees to Newfield’s one-day program.

“The American School of Protocol’s offerings were way over and above anybody we talked to, so we bring her to Michigan every year to train our team,” Kerr said. “What Peggy has to offer is far superior. She is spot on about how to handle yourself in any setting. Everything she does is polished and professional.”

Executives at Henssler Financial in Kennesaw agree. They have been attending “Power, Presence & Style” for the past 20 years but two years ago decided all of their associates could benefit.

None of the associates, all in their 20s and 30s, wanted to attend initially, said Lako, a managing partner. Now they want a second visit.

“They were all blown away,” he said. “They feel so much more comfortable with clients.”

Not only do millennials not know how to dress, but Newfield said company executives maintain that many new employees don’t understand what it means to respect their colleagues.

Newfield attributes America’s rudeness to its new way of communicating — text messages, email and other social media.

“The integration of technology and social media into nearly each and every act of interpersonal communication, particularly among young people, is changing the common understanding of what is considerate behavior and what is inappropriate,” Newfield said.

If someone is rude or inappropriate online, Newfield said they may never have to answer for their behavior in person.

“It is difficult to understand the virtual implications of inconsiderate treatment,” she said. “Have you ever been invited to spend time with someone, then been ignored by that person because they were texting or calling others? If so, you have witnessed the effects of technology on interpersonal communication.”

Whether communicating face to face or via social media, Newfield said that kindness, courtesy and consideration should always be our goal.