Kathleen Henry Joiner still remembers the first time someone with bad manners made her feel small. She was a young woman then, attending one of her first dances in a gown and heels. She felt like a million dollars, gliding across the floor with her date, but when it came time to trade partners, “This guy looked me up and down and said, ‘Nope.’  I’ve never forgotten that, and I’m old.”

 

Henry Joiner, longtime director of Little Rock Junior Cotillion, teaches young men and women not to be that guy.

 

“My license plate says, ‘Be kind,’ and I mean that,” she said.

 

Cotillion refers to a series of classes that teach formal group dances in addition to manners and etiquette. If it sounds a little old-fashioned, it is. After all, the name cotillion is derived from a formal style of square dance that began in the early 18th century among French royalty.

junior cotillion

Kathleen Henry Joiner

“‘Etiquette’ seems stiff and kind of snobby. I like ‘social graces,’” Henry Joiner said, “but etiquette is just a learned set of rules for society designed to make social situations run smoothly.”

 

Later, etiquette became popular with English nobility, and eventually it was adopted by wealthy families in the United States and especially the South.

 

“I think the tradition of the gloves and the grand march probably is a Southern thing, but the quest to teach our young people to be respectful is pretty much universal,” Henry Joiner said.

 

The Little Rock Junior Cotillion was founded in 1948 to teach dance and manners to fifth- through eighth- graders in central Arkansas. A former cotillion student herself, Henry Joiner became the director of the organization in 1986. She personally presides over each class, shaking hands with every single student that enters the door, providing dance instruction and teaching “Moments for Manners,” mini-lessons in etiquette that she hopes her pupils will use for the rest of their lives.

 

For those who think those ballroom dance lessons unnecessary, Henry Joiner begs to differ.

 

“There are events like prom, debutante balls or Greek formals when you need to know how to do a basic waltz, foxtrot or cha-cha. I got to do the waltz with my son at his wedding,” she said.

 

Henry Joiner stresses the program is not just for the elite anymore, a common and stubborn misconception people have held for years. For that reason, financial assistance is available for those who want to participate but are unable to afford it.

 

“Manners have nothing to do with your status or how much money you make or how much education you have,” she said. “You can be the King of England and have horrible manners.”

 

Henry Joiner does concede the origins of some social graces are a tad silly. For instance, legend goes that the United Kingdom’s King Edward VII grew too fat for his suit and had to stop using the bottom button as a result.

A rude snub by a dance partner as a young woman inspired Henry Joiner to instruct generations of young people on proper manners.

“He was a large man and he liked to eat, so his clothes kept getting tighter and tighter, and to be comfortable at the end of dinner, he would unbutton the bottom button on his jacket,” she said. “At the time, everyone wanted to be like royalty, so they all copied him. That has somehow continued to today.”

 

On a three-button jacket, Henry Joiner still tells young men that opening or closing the top button is optional, one should always close the middle button, and one should always leave the bottom button undone mostly because it is tradition, but also because it is practical. In fact, antiquated fashion informs many rules of etiquette. Take the longstanding tradition of a gentleman pulling out a chair for his female companion.

 

“When they first started doing that, women wore hoop skirts and corsets, so they literally couldn’t seat themselves,” Henry Joiner said, noting the custom is not determined by opportunity. “If you’re going on a date and trying to impress a woman, a man could still hold the door and pull out a chair. In business, if he did that, it would be inappropriate. Everyone is equal in a business meeting.”

 

Despite the changing times and the evolution of customs here and there, Henry Joiner argued that social graces are still important to know. While the lessons have not changed much since the Little Rock Junior Cotillion began, Henry Joiner said they are more relevant than ever.

 

“Knowing all these rules makes you more confident, and people will gravitate toward you because you’re comfortable in different situations,” she said. “We have lost civility in our world. So many people don’t do the right thing anymore. They do what’s best for them instead of what’s best for the situation or for other people.

 

“So many well-known people in society, whether actors, singers or politicians, are becoming bolder and not being considerate to others. I think it has emboldened people to say, ‘XYZ did this, so why can’t I do it?’”

 

Technology has also made an unmistakable impact on today’s youth. Every tweener and teenager has a smartphone now. Texting has made communication fast and informal, so people think less about what they say. Plus, kids have the ability to access nearly anything online, including scenes of sex and violence they are too young to process.

 

“I’ve got students that act age-appropriately, and I have kids who have experienced far more than they should have, and they’re not as well-behaved,” Henry Joiner said. “I blame social media. You hear that over and over and over again, but I think it’s really true.”

 

Online comments have also made users meaner, she said, from giving them the ability to insult someone without looking them in the eye to a piling-on effect in which a mean comment opens the door for others to say mean things. This online bullying has increased with sometimes devastating consequences, and it is only getting worse, which also helps normalize bad behavior.

 

The increased pace of life also has a deteriorating effect on good manners.

“Part of it is the busyness of life now,” Henry Joiner said. “For parents to get their children to all the things we’re expected to get them to, get them healthy food, and get them clean and in bed at night, and still work a full-time job, it’s hard to put things like a manners lesson into daily practice.”

 

Henry Joiner has still not lost hope, which is why she is committed to teaching young people good manners and social graces after all of these years, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because they will benefit from knowing them.

 

“When I teach, I tell them I’m giving them a toolbox. Your toolbox can be a fishing tackle, a makeup box, a jewelry box, it doesn’t matter what, but it’s really your brain,” she said. “The things I’m telling you, you don’t have to use all the time, but when you need it, you pull that tool out and you use it.

 

“It all goes back to self-confidence. Once you know the rules, you can relax. You can pull them out of your toolbox and use them whenever you need them.”

 

Despite its old-fashioned connotation, cotillion enrollment remains healthy and has expanded to include professional clientele as companies discover that good manners are, in fact, good business.

 

“I had a financial wealth company ask me if I could talk to their new hires about how to conduct themselves around potential investors. They had found that young people were alienating potential investors because they didn’t know how to order food or write good emails,” she said. “There was just a general lack of knowledge. You’re going to present yourself far better if you have a basic understanding of these rules.

 

“I don’t see my enrollment going down because things are so bad. In fact, it might be going up because things are so bad. Some of our etiquette rules, in my opinion, can go by the wayside. As far as respecting another human being because we’re all God’s children, that’s fading too, and I hope that comes back.”

 

When in doubt, Henry Joiner points to one final rule.

 

“Someone told me you have your Golden Rule — treat everyone like you want to be treated — and then you have the Platinum Rule, which is treat everyone like they want to be treated,” she said, “If you don’t know the first thing about where your fork goes on your plate, you can still have good manners by being respectful and kind to others.” 

Best Behavior

 

Little Rock’s very own Miss Manners, Kathleen Henry Joiner, shared six skills every young person should know to become a more thoughtful and successful person.

 

1. Make a good first impression.

 

It is all about the handshake. A good, firm handshake portrays confidence, but it is also a show of respect. That handshake will definitely come in handy in future business dealings, but the most polite should have it ready for every new person they meet. 

 

A proper handshake is executed right hand to right hand, web to web. (Henry Joiner admits social graces are unfairly skewed toward right-handed folks.) The grip should be firm, and the wrist should be stiff, not limp. What is most important, she said, is to make good eye contact.

 

“Look people in the eye when you’re speaking to them. Never look over their shoulder wondering who else you can talk to,” she said.

 

2. Mind those table manners.

 

Henry Joiner’s No. 1 rule for good table etiquette is to put the phone away. From there, she teaches pupils which fork to use for which course, a handy skill for formal dinners and wedding rehearsals. The trick is to always use the utensils on the outside first and work inward. Remember to keep those elbows off the table, and always pass the food to the right.

 

“Rules of etiquette are like driving laws — not stopping at a red light could cause a collision,”  she said. “At a dinner, not passing food to the right could cause a collision.”

 

While sympathetic to parents with busy schedules, Henry Joiner advised parents to fit in a quick lesson on table manners at dinner.

 

“There are even manners at fast-food places. Don’t leave your table messy and dirty,” she said. “Similarly, don’t jump in front of somebody else in line. Clean up after yourself in the bathroom.”

 

3. Be gracious.

 

One of the most endangered rules of etiquette is writing thank-you notes, Henry Joiner said. Sending a thank-you note makes a person stand out from the crowd because people do not receive many thank-you notes anymore, she added. She said while an email note will suffice in many situations, for important things such as job interviews and significant people such as mentors, friends and family, it is always best to follow up with a handwritten thank you.

 

“[Thank-you notes] are always welcomed, and you will definitely score points if you send one,” she said. “I would still write a handwritten thank-you note and put a stamp on it and mail it if it’s something that’s really important, like a wedding gift. These people have taken an hour or more to find the gift, wrap it, they’ve spent money on it, and you can’t write a five-minute thank-you note? That’s a slap in the face in my opinion.” 

 

4. Be a good sport.

 

This lesson applies to winners, losers and spectators. If winning, do not gloat, because the opposing team is probably feeling pretty down on themselves. If losing, do not lash out in anger and say or do something that will cause later regret.

 

“I’ll say players have to follow the rules of the game. It all comes down to respect,” Henry Joiner said. “I was so distressed when I heard Razorback football fans booing our own team in the game against Mississippi State. As spectators, I tell them booing is so rude, and we don’t yell at the umpire or coach either.”

 

5. Words matter.

 

Other than being kind, Henry Joiner also encourages students not to use foul language. Curse words are considered inappropriate at school and church, and frankly, she does not think children should use them at all. Teaching children to watch their language carries over to their adult lives, where cursing in an office might offend and alienate coworkers and lead management to take them less seriously.

 

“I preach be kind and respectful. Foul language is not respectful language,” she said. “Words matter; once it comes out, you can’t put it back in. Whatever damage you’ve done, it’s been done. It’s not going to go away.”

 

6. Dress the part.

 

There is a reason cotillion still requires young men and women to dress in suit jackets and gowns, and that is because people behave differently when they are dressed in formal clothes, be it in the ballroom or the boardroom.

 

“People who are dressed casually do not act as nicely, as obediently or as mannerly as people who are dressed up with more respectful clothes on,” Henry Joiner said. “When kids are dressed up, they behave better as a group.

 

“We are so casual now in our attire. I’m surprised by how people dress at the grocery store. I even see it in our churches; you dress up out of respect to the Lord, not necessarily for comfort.”

 

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