Why Manners Matter: The case for modern finishing schools


The dynamism and opportunities on offer in America’s economy are shadowed, unfortunately, by a surprising lack of social mobility at the lower rungs of the income ladder. Because of persistent barriers to social mobility, often the perverse result of federal antipoverty programs, the children of the poor tend to stay poor. The single best way to overcome those barriers is to get a good education, and no education is complete without social skills. Manners matter.

“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot,” said Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who rose from humble beginnings to the nation’s highest court. The “fine art of getting along,” as Dale Carnegie famously called it in How to Win Friends and Influence People, may be the form of “capital” that is most readily teachable. An education in social skills could be an effective way to overcome social inequalities.

People can develop the social skills necessary to create the network of relationships that constitute social capital. Social skills can help students form relationships with people from all backgrounds, not just their own. This is important, because social science demonstrates a correlation between economic success and having relationships with people of diverse backgrounds.

Thankfully, evidence indicates that social skills can contribute to the economic and professional success of disadvantaged groups: Recent research by David Deming at Harvard shows that the social skills women generally possess have contributed to the narrowing gender gap in the labor market since the 1980s. Everyone stands to benefit from improving his social skills — which are often necessary to make use of the knowledge learned in school. But Deming’s study suggests that such improvement could also be an effective way of overcoming disadvantages many students and people experience early in life.

Deming’s work corroborates Harvard sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack’s study of the challenges disadvantaged students face when they begin college. As Jack wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last fall, such students are often unaware of the “hidden curriculum” of “unwritten social expectations” that govern academic environments. Their struggle to navigate new social norms in these environments puts them at a disadvantage, especially when compared with the “privileged poor,” as Jack calls them, or students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had the opportunity to attend elite primary and secondary schools on vouchers or scholarships.

Jack notes: “Elite colleges effectively hedge their bets: They recruit those already familiar with the social and cultural norms that pervade their own campuses.” Those that are not familiar with these norms do adjust, “but acclimating to the social side of academic life takes time, potentially limiting their access to institutional resources and social networks,” he says. “Academic life is inherently social.”

Jack recommends that schools make their “hidden curriculum” less opaque. Colleges could offer, for instance, pre-orientation programs that helped students acclimate to campus life and taught them how to develop relationships with peers, professors, and university administrators. In this vein, six low-income students from Milwaukee’s St. Marcus Lutheran School will benefit from Dartmouth College’s initiative to nurture intelligent students who come from overlooked environments. The six students will visit to Hanover, N.H., in May to observe college classes, meet professors, and get advice from college students. The hope is that they will return to Milwaukee inspired and motivated to finish high school. This excursion will help the St. Marcus students learn what an Ivy League university expects academically, but also what social norms and personal habits the school inculcates in its students.

Students learn how to give a firm handshake, how to introduce themselves, how to maintain eye contact and smile during a conversation, and how to dress and present themselves for success.

Cristo Rey High School, a network of schools that began in Chicago in 1996 and has since grown to include 30 schools serving more than 10,000 students, is also an instructive example. Most of the students in the network come from families of limited means (with an average household income of $35,000 per year); each student’s cost of education is partially financed through his job placement at a local company. The students assume entry-level roles, and their entry-level salaries go to the school to offset the costs of their education.

In preparation for real-world work environments, during the summer, 14- and 15-year-old high-school freshmen undergo a four-week intensive training in social and work skills: the Summer Bridge Program, or “First Impressions 101,” as 60 Minutes referred to it. In this course, students learn how to give a firm handshake, how to introduce themselves, how to maintain eye contact and smile during a conversation, and how to dress and present themselves for success. I spoke with a rising sophomore from Cristo Rey, Luciana, who enthused: “I’ve never felt more confident in myself and my ability to interact with others. Knowing that I can and have worked with grown professionals makes me encouraged to do so in college and beyond.”

Initiatives such as these are crucial, as national data on college graduation rates for black and minority students demonstrate the need for schools and colleges to do all they can to prepare their students for success: Black students beginning college from 1997 to 2007 were about 20 percent less likely to finish within four years than were their white peers, and Hispanic students were about 10 percent less likely.

As useful as soft skills are in navigating academic institutions, they are indispensable to success in the working world. Whether making deals over power lunches in the upper echelons of business or getting jobs via the referral system on which many blue-collar tradespeople rely, workers depend on their social networks — made possible through having good manners — to achieve success.

Some might claim that emphasizing social skills among ethnic-minority students is nothing more than cultural colonialism. After all, who is anyone to assert that Western and predominately white codes of conduct are superior to those of other cultures or minority communities? But embracing the social skills necessary to succeed in the culture in which one lives does not require the abandonment of previous cultural and social identities. Teaching Spanish to a native English speaker residing in Latin America does not imply that English is useless. Acquiring the ability to communicate in a local tongue is simply a necessity for success. Furthermore, many characteristics that are required to develop social skills — such as the self-restraint needed to listen more than speak, the discipline necessary to show mutual respect, or the selflessness required to show genuine interest in and kindness to others — are valued across time and cultures because of their utility in fostering harmonious human interaction in virtually any society.

In further examining this critique, Tamar Adler’s A Manners Manifesto, published last year in the New York Times, is instructive. Adler noted that throughout history, manners and notions of “proper” social conduct have been exclusionary, causing many in our democratic era to reject their utility today. But, she argued, there is good sense in keeping rules that actually “help us to be good rather than seem good. Whatever unites merits keeping, and what divides can be folded and stored away with the linen too old and ornamental to use.” She also noted that manners concern more than social pleasantries — they preserve human dignity. The 19th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce wrote, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

In essence, opposing slavery and promoting manners are similar: They are fundamentally about respecting the dignity of other people and learning to put others before oneself. In this, they help curb the impulse to dominate. Teaching people to respect others and show interest in their opinions and experiences, especially when they are different from their own, begins with teaching the value inherent in each human being.

By developing manners and social skills, Americans of all backgrounds will be better prepared to meet the expectations of the society in which they live. This is advantageous on many levels — most significantly by contributing to a fairer playing field for one and all.

— Alexandra Hudson is the lead education-policy analyst at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.