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Politeness takes a tech turn: Cotillions teach teens electronic etiquette

Don’t use your cell phone while waiting in line. Don’t relate bad news via e-mails. Think before you hit “send.”

Such are some of the lessons cotillion schools across the country are teaching as they adjust to life, and threats to proper etiquette, in the 21st century. These programs, where children and teenagers for generations have learned to dance the foxtrot, differentiate between a dessert fork and a salad fork, and interact graciously with the opposite sex-—boys don’t have cooties after all—have added a new component to their social education curriculum: electronic etiquette.

“I think people are starting to realize how important electronic etiquette is, because that’s really where our society is going,” said Katherine Mason, vice president of Jon D. Williams Cotillions, one of the oldest cotillion programs in the country. When using e-mail or a cell phone, she said, “people tend to forget their manners when they’re not face-to-face.”

Cotillion programs have been around since the late 1940s, and parents have traditionally enrolled their children in hopes that they will pick up a variety of social skills ranging from the most basic (writing a good thank you note) to the more challenging (executing a ballroom twirl in the right direction).

But with today’s adolescents developing text-based relationships, blogging their diary entries, and e-mailing internship applications, cotillion programs have begun reorienting their programs to better serve their students.

Ballroom dancers Jon and Vivian Williams founded Jon D. Williams Cotillions in 1949 out of the Broadmoor Hotel, a resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., with the goal of using dance as a tool to teach social skills. Since then, the program has gone national, and four years ago, it introduced electronic etiquette classes to its curriculum.

Admits Mason, these lessons are a work in progress. “Because the technology was developed so quickly, the rules haven’t been developed yet,” she said.

Still, etiquette experts say that electronic courtesies are a manifestation of the same values social education programs have been teaching for decades. “Manners change. They change over time, from region to region, from house to house. The principles do not change,” said Cindy Post Senning, the author of Teen Manners: From Malls to Meals to Messaging and Beyond, which was published last year, and great-granddaughter of iconic etiquette expert Emily Post.

Referring to her great-grandmother’s well-known book, Etiquette, Post Senning said, “Emily’s book in 1922, it looks and reads very differently, but the principles are the same: respect, consideration and honesty. We change how we articulate that.”

But convenient communication, she acknowledged, does present a new challenge for practicing politeness. “The new technology makes it easy for us to act in ways that don’t show the same respect that we normally would like to show,” she said. “It doesn’t require the same level of intention.”

Parents, for one, have needed some guidance with these changes. So in 2003, the National League of Junior Cotillions, with chapters in nearly every state, published The Official Book of Electronic Etiquette.

“Parents were telling the directors across the nation, ‘We need more on cell phone courtesies, on sending and receiving e-mails,’” said Anne Winters, the league’s executive director. “We were trying to raise awareness of the importance of treating others with honor, dignity and respect, even if you can’t see them because you’re talking with them over the phone or the computer.”

The book teaches, for instance, not to use an obnoxious cell phone ring that may be disruptive; not to keep your phone on the table at a restaurant; and not to talk loudly when discussing sensitive topics.

A new edition of the book, to be released this fall, will contain expanded information for parents and children on social networking etiquette, including monitoring what friends post on Facebook walls or in the comments section of MySpace.

With gossip becoming a more public beast—no longer just a whisper in the corner with a best friend—teens today “need to watch what they say because everybody is seeing it,” said Winters. “It’s not just the one person you’re writing to.”

At least for some, the lessons seem to be working. Lauren Lankford, 14, recently completed her second year of cotillion in Riverside, Calif. She says she understands why some text message abbreviations are acceptable (like “atb” for “all the best” or “ne1” for “anyone”) and some aren’t (“nrly” for “gnarly”).

“In texts, there’s a list of what you can abbreviate. It’s pretty universal,” she said. She seemed at peace with the list, but added, “Sometimes when I’m texting, it’s weird that these abbreviations are inappropriate because my friends wouldn’t consider it rude.”

Lankford, who enjoys dance and theater and hopes to enter the performing arts, said she thinks the manners she’s learning now will help her as an adult. “I don’t think you have to have completely polished manners to be respected, but I think it just helps,” she said. Still, when she practices what she’s learned at cotillion, her friends sometimes do double takes. “I’ll be typing and a friend will be like, ‘You’re so proper. It’s almost like you’re writing an essay,’” she said.

But Lankford stressed that the lessons, electronic and not, aren’t making her too buttoned-up. “I’m not turning my teacup down after school because I don’t want any more tea,” she said.

E-mail: jyk2117@columbia.edu