MINDING THEIR MANNERS. `Social savvy' is the subject of Ritz's course for children
BOSTON'S Ritz-Carlton is the sort of place where you instinctively want to trot out your best manners, the ones you save for occasions. Where the waiter calls you sir or madam, no matter what you're wearing.
Where there is a broad, kindly man in blue uniform and white gloves manning the gleaming brass innards of each elevator.
And where the ceilings are high and chandeliered, and huge wide windows look out over elegant, gray wintry gardens and malls.
Mostly, the Ritz-Carlton is full of grown-up people in mink coats. But recently, it started holding two-day seminars in good manners just for children called ``A Weekend of Social Savvy.'' They are open to all children aged 8-12, at a price of $200 for five meals, a night at the Ritz, and instruction.
The lessons are presided over by Miss Judith R'e, directrice of the Judith R'e Academie of Instruction in the Social Graces. The point of this is to become the sort of civilized person who feels at home in places like the Ritz-Carlton.
The weekend kicked off in the Ritz's handsome tea room.
``Ladies and gentlemen,'' said Miss Judith, after introducing herself to the 10 participants, who were politely drinking hot chocolate at a white linen covered table, and sitting a bit forward in the big damask armchairs to get the bend of the knee in the right place. ``This weekend you're going to strive for excellence.''
In some circles, manners are a touchy subject. Some people mourn the fact that nowadays most adults would not know a social grace if it bit them, while others contend that the whole idea is stuffy and elitist.
Miss Judith, a gracious, black-haired woman in a black-and-pink suit with long pearls, put these concerns promptly to rest: ``Being considerate is what etiquette is all about,'' she said.
She led off by taking her charges on a tour of the hotel, starting in the main dining room - ``Entrez, s'il vous plait,'' said the waiter in white tie, very grandly - then examining the kitchen, and on through a huge airy function room where Miss Judith had once seen a wedding, until finally we ended up in the room where the first seminar was to be held, in flower arranging.
Miss Judith pulled a huge rustling sheaf of ferns, iris, and purple orchids out of tissue paper, and the children lit into it.
The result was a wonderfully spirited arrangement, with a miscellaneous breezy quality unobtainable by the adult, who is liable to freeze up in the presence of a hundred dollar's worth of flowers.
``I like what you've done with these flowers shooting out on either side. It gives it a very lovely presence,'' said Miss Judith.
``It looks like a jungle,'' said Ian.
At lunch, as the waiter poured milkshakes into stem glasses with a flourish, Miss Judith explained all sorts of social subtleties: that gentlemen are supposed to bob up in their seats when a lady sits down, that you break your roll a little piece at a time, that you wait for a signal from your hostess to start eating, and that there is an elegant and not-so-elegant way to sneeze at the table.
Ian said that he sometimes sneezed into his elbow ``if it's kind of a surprise.''
``That's very creative, but there are other ways,'' replied Miss Judith kindly, demonstrating the correct graceful turn of the head and use of the napkin.
Since this was the very first Savvy weekend, a TV news team was there to record the event.
As Miss Judith suggested using a piece of bread to help with skittish peas (``that's very acceptable'' ) the cameraman, whose shirt was somewhat unbuttoned over a hairy chest, jerked his thumb toward the group and asked the producer, ``You want me to grab some of this?''
Teatime - aside from the camera and sound men trailing after the waiter as he poured tea and distributed eclairs for everyone - was like a scene from Renoir.
Miss Judith led a supremely polite discussion about the numbers of dogs and cats, and brothers and sisters enjoyed by all the people present, and about the fact that there was enough snow to do snow men and animals (everyone agreed this was so), and other topics of general interest.
``What are we doing here?'' said Miss Judith. ``We've been eating and enjoying each other's company - that's what small talk is all about. We've found that some like the snow and others built snowmen and that some enjoy fresh snowfall. That's getting to know the other person, taking time to ask questions that they will enjoy answering.
``It's nice when someone takes an interest in you.''
Next, Miss Judith introduced Mr. Tom Adams to help discuss the correct way to answer the telephone.
Ivan described his telephone technique: ``I go like `See you later' and hang up.''
Kavonya said in a soft little voice, ``I say `Thank you for calling.'''
``Thank you for calling, Mr. Jones, and it was a pleasure speaking with you,'' suggested Mr. Adams expansively.
Miss Judith then spoke on the importance of writing thank you letters. She had all the children write a practice one, on handsome blue and cream Ritz stationery, thanking the manager of the Ritz for the weekend of social savvy.
There was the thoughtful silence that accompanies creative endeavor.
``How do you spell `social'?'' asked Lydia.
Then it was time for dinner in the dining room, with all the children en grande toilette in velvet, sashes, and hairbows, or suits and ties. They sat in gold brocade armchairs while a pianist played ``If they could only paint a portrait of my love,'' and solemnly discussed the menu, which was to lead off with mock truffle soup with puff pastry turtle.
``I guess truffles are a kind of turtle,'' said Ian gravely.
Miss Judith, in a slender black cocktail dress, introduced the tedious but correct way to eat soup (something on which even the most manners-conscious are tempted to do a little corner cutting), and her pupils nobly did as directed, despite drips.
Time for more hints: if the soup is boiling hot, the thing to do is to quickly swallow it and then take a sip of water. Miss Judith explained that the ostentatious fanning of the open mouth does not fall into the category of gracious behaviour.
The lights twinkled in the trees on Newbury Street as the children headed off to their dancing lesson. Mark Christopher, a handsome, elegantly smiling young man, taught them the basic step: Step, slide, step, slide. ``The lady puts her left hand on the gentleman's right shoulder'' - if she can reach it, that is.
To anyone who has ever been to dancing school, the scene had an odd, funny nostalgic quality: the little girls with their eyes glued to their feet, the little boys specializing in sudden changes of direction and very large steps, all swaying stolidly from side to side, one, two, one, two, regardless of the rhythm of ``Those were the days, my friend.''
``What are you doing?'' Lydia asked Ivan.
``Ladies, don't fight the movement of your dance partner,'' called Mr. Christopher. ``Ladies, please don't dance with each other, dance with the gentlemen.''
As I left, Mary and Brooke were capering about together.
Mary paused to admire KaVonya's black velvet skirt, so KaVonya obligingly spun on one heel to demonstrate its full beauty.
Downstairs, the coat check attendant handed over my down coat, holding it in her arms so carefully that for a second I imagined gleaming sable folds spilling down over the counter; then it was off into the chilly streets of Boston, which could use a little social savvy, honestly.