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Originally published March 9, 2013 at 5:52 PM | Page modified March 9, 2013 at 10:31 PM

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At MIT, Charm School prepares brainiacs for business

Now in its 20th year, the MIT Charm School teaches students etiquette basics, such as how to behave at a formal dinner. The event is voluntary, but to its students and instructors, Charm School may be as beneficial to their future as an A in astrodynamics.

/ Los Angeles Times

Charm School 101

On footwear: Never wear open-toed shoes to an interview. Men should wear socks at work.

On shaking hands: Don’t grip too hard. Maintain eye contact.

On hosting a party: Have a clean toilet, greet each guest and make introductions.

Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The MIT students were stumped, or as stumped as a group of young adults with SAT scores dwarfing the average mortgage payment could be when faced with the question: Is it ever acceptable to dunk?

Quiet settled over the roomful of round tables, where not a backward cap, gum-chomping jaw nor buzzing, bleeping or chirping cellphone was to be seen. A young woman’s voice emerged from the back with the answer that etiquette expert Dawn Bryan was hoping to hear:

“Basically, you don’t dunk unless it’s biscotti.”

If you read this while dunking a jelly doughnut into your coffee during breakfast with the boss, well, Charm School is for you, assuming you’re enough of a brainiac to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take part in its annual paean to politesse.

Now in its 20th year, the event is voluntary, but to its students and instructors, Charm School may be as beneficial to their future as an A in astrodynamics.

That’s especially true in this economy, said Alana Hamlett of MIT’s Student Activities and Leadership Office, who oversees the gathering.

“We’re giving our students the tools to be productive members of society, to be the whole package,” Hamlett said. “It gets them thinking about who they are and what their impact and effect is, whether they’re working on a team in an engineering company, or in a small group on a project, or interviewing for a job.”

MIT isn’t the only science-focused institution to veer into the world of etiquette. Caltech offers Manners 101, “in preparation for the post-Caltech world of business receptions and dinner parties,” according to the course description.

The several-hour noncredit class, offered a few times each year, runs students through a multicourse meal with a business etiquette consultant.

“We’ll serve up some challenging food to eat — shellfish in the shell, really long pasta, Cornish game hen, you name it,” said course instructor Tom Mannion, Caltech’s director for student activities.

Mannion also leads classes on food and wine pairing, and on cooking, which use students’ interest in chemistry and other physical sciences to open their eyes to
etiquette issues.

“If you know the basics of wine and food, you’re going to be set for life,” said Mannion, whose cooking students receive credit and each year produce a dinner for physicist Stephen Hawking.

It’s not as if these MIT and Caltech students are ill-mannered oafs. But the world in which they have grown up is far different from those of previous generations, where table manners were taught at nightly sit-down family dinners, where texting, Facebooking and tweeting didn’t exist, where graduates were not as likely to encounter colleagues from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

How does an observant Muslim navigate a business breakfast during the fasting month of Ramadan, for example? (Politely explain why you won’t be eating but don’t give a lecture on religion, skip the meeting or demand it be rescheduled.)

Should a male employee hold the door for his female boss? (If you get to the door first, sure, and do it for your male colleagues as well — it’s polite.)

In addition, Mannion noted, the study habits and interests that get someone into a school like Caltech or MIT tend to isolate them in youth from the usual social outlets. Hours spent in the lab don’t prepare you for attending a formal dance or meeting the girlfriend’s parents at a fancy restaurant with multiple utensils, glasses and finger bowls.

MIT’s Charm School started in 1993 as a series of 20-minute sessions held over a four-hour period one day each winter term.

It has evolved to meet the etiquette issues of the 21st century, and this year it began with the formal sit-down dinner course led by Bryan and ended with dozens of Doctorates of Charm being handed out to students like Jaclyn Belleville of Los Angeles, who learned among other things that she should not wear open-toed shoes to a job interview. Not even in California.

“It’s nice to have the opportunity to learn this stuff and to have it explained, instead of just stumbling across these issues,” Belleville said as she and dozens of other students admired their certificates while munching from a table laden with brownies, cookies and cakes.

Several students were back for their second or third run through Charm School, an indication of interest in each year’s new sessions.

This year, there were classes on tweeting appropriately, operating in a cross-cultural workplace, grasping the basics of contemporary art and networking with older alums who can be key to helping students gain entry into the professional world.

Bryan, the etiquette expert, was the keynote speaker as well as the adviser at the sit-down dinner, which drew about 55 students. She said it’s not surprising, given today’s “cubicle culture” in offices and the popularity of social networking and working from home, that manners have fallen by the wayside.

“There’s not that much face-to-face interaction anymore,” Bryan said as the dinner wrapped up.

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