A Conversation with Mrs. T
By Anne Stanton 3/30/09
Our most polite award in this years Best of Northern Michigan poll goes to T Hanawalt. She actually wasnt on the ballot, but, quite honestly, she has no competition. Mrs. T, as she goes by, has turned a nook in Building 50 into a picture of gentilityfresh flowers, fine china, and cloth napkinsall in her quest to teach us good manners. As the proprietor of Mrs. Ts Tutorials, her instruction ranges from putting a napkin on your lap to writing a proper thank you note.
Yet Mrs. T (short for a first name she doesnt care for) isnt stuffy or judgmental. Instead, she epitomizes the relaxed refinement one can only get from growing up in the South. When shes not teaching manners, shes teaching second grade at Pathfinder School, where all of her children wait patiently to be called upon before talking. (Well, most of the time.)
Northern Express asked Mrs. Ts advice on how to soften a bit of our rough edges here in the great white North.
NE: When I decided to interview you, I started thinking a lot about cell phone manners. I, along with many others, have had moments of rudeness with my cell phone. Just the other week, I found myself texting someone while sitting at lunch with friends. I want to do better. Advice?
Mrs. T: Turn off your cell phone anytime youre sitting with someone, including lunch. Just turn it off. You can get a message later. And when youre in a store purchasing something, turn your cell phone off. Its very impolite to have your cell phone distract you from an interaction with another human being.
NE: How about when youre on a walk with someone?
Mrs. T: Turn it off! If youre on a walk and youre engaged with sharing some time together, turn your cell phone off.
NE: How about driving?
Mrs. T: Same thing.
NE: Do you think we as a society are becoming less polite?
Mrs. T: Oh definitely. All you have to do is look around. If you go to a fast food chain and buy a kids meal right now, you have the opportunity to receive a burping machine. If you want to burp, you can simply press a button and this noise will be made for this child.
Equally, if you drive around the city and look at the bumper stickers, the words written and messages sharedNOT on a voluntary basis, you dont have a choice, theyre sitting in front of youare offensive.
The third way that manners have been diminishedif you look at the television shows that children are offered. The parents and other adults in these TV shows are treated without respect and are spoken to in a way that we in our homes would never accept. And this becomes a model for our children. These shows are supposed to be entertaining and funny, but they are actually frightening.
NE: Which shows are the biggest offenders?
Mrs. T: I dont want to answer that.
NE: I think theres a common perception that good manners are attached to class. High class, low class. Although, in truth, Ive met semi-famous and very rich people with no manners at all.
Mrs. T: Manners are for everyone. Its simply a matter of education, and they are available to everyone, any time, anywhere. Manners are for all of us. It s really about creating a civil society. And we all want that at the base of our hearts. It makes our lives more rewarding. It gives us a better way to move through each and every day.
NE: You always look so put together, never sloppy. Tell me about the value of first impressions.
Mrs. T: Well, I work with young people to teach them about first impressions.
Unfortunately, first impressions have a lasting effect, and if theyre made poorly, it takes a lot longer to repair them compared to just starting off with the right foot forward. I work with young people to teach them how to make choices on the message they want to send, whether in a business or in a social situation. I teach them to talk to someone and look them in the eyes, and to position their bodies so they look attentive. Things they might not have learned.
Again, these are all things you can learn; no one is born knowing these things. No one is born knowing how to make a good first impression. No one is born knowing how to be polite; you have to be taught and you have to want to learn.
NE: Speaking of first impressions, do you think Northern Michigan is a bit too casual?
Mrs. T: No. I think Northern Michigan is comfortable. I think we look very comfortable, because we live in a snowy climate. The outdoors is valuable to all of us and being in it is valuable to our lives. We dress to the place in which we live. We dont live in a fancy city; we live in a cozy community with Raclette cheese and snowshoes and hiking and trails and boats and water. I feel like we do just fine.
NE: I have lived in many other places, and have to say that Traverse City has the most consistently nice people. Although in the South, they are much more ready to hug you and call you honey and sweetie.
Mrs. T: Its not as sincere. Ive lived in Milan and Atlanta and Manhatttan and Chicago. Traverse City is one of the nicest places to live and work. Its that Midwestern down-to-earth politeness that carries those of us who are transplants.
NE: How does your background play into your good manners?
Mrs. T: I grew up in the South, in Georgia, in a very old Southern family that has been on the same property for six generations. I come from a long line of polite Southern people. And hospitality and the ability to make someone comfortable has been part of my familys demeanor from times I cant even remember; there are family stories that transfer culture from one generation to another. An oral tradition that teaches civility and manners and politeness.
NE: So how do you respond when someonesay a sales clerkis rude to you?
Mrs. T: I recently had this happen. I was waiting to be helped and had actually started being helped when someone walked up and interrupted and spent five minutes discussing their situation with the person who was supposedly helping me. I sat quietly and patiently until the person was done and walked away. I looked at the sales clerk and said, You know what? I need to go now. And I left.
I dont think you have to accept rudeness. And you dont have to be in turn rude. You can just leave. They lost a customer. Theyll figure it out. Its not my job to teach everyone, only those who like to learn. No one has to endure that behavior.
NE: You have two teen-age twin boys. Are they polite?
Mrs. T: Yes, they are very polite.
NE: OkayIm asking as a parent of a 17-year-old. Are they polite even when theyre upset with you?
Mrs. T: Well, theyre normal. The reason I say theyre well behaved and polite, is that people who have them over to their homes, people who entertain them, will tell me theyre beautifully mannered, and enjoy having them around.
NE: Now Im going to ask you some manner questions. Silverware?
Mrs. T: Sometimes it can seem daunting, especially if you have a lot of pieces. Just know to work from the outside in. That will pretty much save you. If the salad is being served first, the salad fork will be placed on the outside. Theres also the question, where do you put the silverware if you are resting, but still dining? Its a crossed position at 7 oclock and 5 oclock. The finished position, when youre through with the meal, is to place them in a parallel fashion facing 5 p.m.
NE: How about the rule to never wear white shoes or white pants before Memorial Day or after Labor Day?
Mrs. T: At your discretion, you can do what you want these days.
NE: Always wear a slip?
Mrs. T: Goodness gracious, no.
NE: Dont talk about your personal problems at work?
Mrs. T: Very true. Very, very true.
NE: Never talk about money problems?
Mrs. T: Probably a good idea if you want to stay friends with people.
NE: Even money saving ideas?
Mrs. T: I avoid conversations related to finances and to employment in social situations.
They are very personal. If I dont really know someone, I dont discuss them. If theyre my friends, everything is okay. So much depends on the setting and what you choose to discuss. If youre at a political rally, then by all means you can talk about politics. But if youre at the home of an acquaintance for the first time at dinner, you probably dont want to talk about those things.
I teach people that they should have three ideas or questions tucked into their back pocketa recent book theyve read about, a recent adventure theyve had, or a hobby they might share. Because there are lots and lots of things to talk about rather than focus on something that causes a person some embarrassment.
NE: How about what to wear and not to wear at work?
Mrs. T: Depends on where you work.
NE: What to wear and not to wear, ever?
Mrs. T: Again, we make choices. If youre well educated in terms of what is appropriate, then if you choose to wear something thats inappropriate, thats your personal statement. There are no laws. Its a lawless endeavor.
We live in a country where we continue to value freedom of speech and freedom of action. So there has to be a certain level of tolerance. At the same time, hopefully the better educated you become the more sensitive you are to those around you. I find so often in a larger city where everything is so impersonal, there is a complete disregard to the impact you have through your actions. But in our little town, your behavior is more pronounced. Its what you want to say about yourself to your friends and employer. The thing is to be aware that youre doing that. Youre purposeful; youre not doing it by mistake. Look at your bodywhat do you feel comfortable in, what do you look good in?
NE: Is it best not to look people in the eye in a big city?
Mrs. T: Oh gosh, you can look people in the eye in the city. Just dont stare. Its impolite to stare. And sometimes in the big city, youll see things you might want to stare at. When I lived in Manhattan, I would speak to people and they would speak to me. I dont think we have to be frightened.
I think Southern women are accused of being flirtatious. In the South, we love to laugh, we love to have a good time, and we love to not take ourselves quite so seriously.
NE: If I may be so rude to ask, how much does a manners class cost?
Mrs. T: Forty-five dollars an hour.
NE: A bargain.
Mrs. T: I think so too. Table manners cost a little more. They require more time, and I do them in groups of five. Ive taught all kinds of peopleGirl Scout troops, schoolchildren. Ive taught adults who want to polish their manners for a business dinner. There have been grandparents who have put their grandchildren in classes, as many as eight at a time. They want their grandchildren to have a little bit more than the average person is getting this day and age.
To make an appointment with Mrs. T., call 231.360.9591. And say please please.