Etiquette classes taught here: The maven of manners

03/25/2014 4:30 PM

03/31/2014 11:07 AM

Spicy cologne and fruity perfume scents mingle with typical savory steak house smells as guests settle in for a three-course dinner on a recent Sunday evening in the Chisholm Room at Leawood’s Hereford House.

The banquet room is at capacity, with four tables of 10 guests each. Dress code is a couple of notches above casual, with guys in suit jackets and ties. Girls are decked out in trendy dresses and skirts.

The occasion is Etiquette Kansas City’s Children and Teen Manners February class finale, led by owner Janis Kliethermes, known to students simply as Mrs. K.

Tonight the rubber meets the road as kids ranging from ages 5 to 12 put their best feet forward following four weeks of intensive instruction in modern-day etiquette.

Polite small talk ensues as Hereford House servers descend with salads, placing them in front of the well-coifed guests. Some diners hesitate, looking surreptitiously to the left, then the right, for reassurance that the proper utensil to use is the small fork on the far left side of their plate.

Suddenly a girl excuses herself from one of the tables. Her four male dining companions exchange nervous looks and silently — almost reluctantly, judging by facial expressions — they all rise.

Luke Tyrer, 7, is snappily dressed in a crisp shirt and a tie sporting a perfect Windsor knot. Brow furrowed, he slowly pulls out 7-year-old Emma Grewal’s chair.

Dabbing the corners of her mouth with a linen napkin that she carefully places on the chair, Emma stands, offers a quick curtsy and exits the room.

Tumbling back into their chairs with a collective sigh, the boys return to eating salads, shooting each other sideways glances.

Luke seeks support from his peer across the table.

“How’d I do?” he mouths to 8-year-old Grant Kass.

Grant nods approval to his buddy, adding a thumbs-up sign, sly wink and toothy grin.

Visibly relieved, Luke carefully retrieves lettuce that fell from his fork onto the tablecloth.

Satisfied that Mrs. K didn’t see the covert use of fingers to rescue the stray greens, Luke munches on the salad until Emma returns to her seat and the chair-pulling scene is replayed.

Joy Tyrer, Luke’s mom, enrolled him and 9-year-old brother Austin in Etiquette Kansas City because she and husband Jason thought it was time the boys learned how important traditional manners are regardless of the situation.

“It’s nice to have someone other than parents teach kids manners,” said Tyrer. “They listen more if it’s not mom or dad, plus they learn with peers. And Janis’ approach is fun.”

Luke and Grant, of Overland Park, and Emma, of Leawood, along with 37 other hopeful Etiquette Kansas City graduates from across the metro area are on their best, good-postured behavior.

No burps, toots, jostling, slurping, slouching, squirming or elbows on the table allowed tonight. Neither is bickering, arm punching or fidgeting.

In the Chisholm Room, just good, old-fashioned manners, sprinkled liberally with “please” and “thank you,” are on the menu along with salad, soup, chicken, steak and chocolate sundaes.

“Boys and girls, you all look so handsome!” Janis Kliethermes of Overland Park exclaimed to the 40 gussied-up kids assembled in the Chisholm Room.

Kliethermes, whose confident and gregarious nature is a hybrid of Martha Stewart meets the Food Network’s Sandra Lee, authored the four-week curriculum she personally teaches to students.

Class topics include confidence and poise, communication with style, grooming and social etiquette and table manners. Sessions are conducted each fall, winter and spring on Sunday afternoons in the conference room of Dr. Deb’s office on Town Center Plaza’s backside, with the exception of table manners, which convenes across the parking lot at the Hereford House.

A thoroughly updated version of Miss Manners, Kliethermes dispenses humor and diplomacy as she educates kids — and adults in her corporate trainings — on the benefits of good etiquette.

“Manners never go out of style,” said Kliethermes, who has taught thousands since 2001.

“In fact, it’s more critical than ever in today’s competitive business world to present yourself well. Get ‘em while they’re young is my motto — but then again, you’re never too old to learn or brush up on manners.”

A statuesque blonde outfitted head-to-toe in a chic black dress with a short jacket and the highest of heels, Kliethermes circulates the Chisholm Room like a mother hen. She offers guidance as kids navigate the finer points of eating something more complicated than burgers and fries from the drive-through.

Silver bangles on Kliethermes’ slender wrist jingle softly as she moves from table to table, her ear-to-ear smile making the medicine of good manners easier to digest.

Daughters Heidi, 22, and Megan, 20 — graduates of Etiquette Kansas City — assist their mom, watching over tables and offering gentle suggestions, always careful not to embarrass the offender.

“Let’s all sit up straight,” Heidi says to her table.

“Napkins in your laps,” Megan reinforces to her table.

Kliethermes wags a well-manicured nail to the collective group, demonstrating the correct way to drink a glass of water.

“Remember not to chomp down on ice,” she admonished. “If you’re at the ballpark with mom and dad and you’re eating a hotdog with a soda, it’s OK if you chew ice. But not when you’re at the dinner table or a restaurant.”

Chase Hope, 9, of Olathe and Avery Weaver, 7, of Lenexa sit side-by-side at the table where Kliethermes hovers. They tentatively look at one another while gingerly sipping water, taking care to avoid the bobbing ice cubes.

“Don’t wipe your mouths with a napkin,” continued Kliethermes, raising the linen napkin to her mouth, daintily patting her lips.

“And never,” — she pauses to make a point as each child stops mid-bite to listen — “ever use your sleeve to clean your mouth. That’s just not polite.”

A wave of giggles erupts and for a brief second, it appears a few arm punches might break out. Heads shake in solemn agreement.

Next up is the bread-and-butter plate. Kliethermes gives a refresher of the plate’s function and its location at the dinner plate’s upper left.

“We talked about this in table manners,” she reminded. “Don’t put the butter knife on the table once you’ve used it — or any of your silverware, for that matter.”

Kliethermes stands at her place setting, holding the small plate in her hand, resting the butter knife on top.

“When butter is passed, put some on your plate and tear pieces of the roll or bread and butter as you eat them.”

As Kliethermes butters a piece of roll and pops it into her mouth, a hand shoots up in the air.

“What if you need more butter?” wondered Maddi Pruett, 5, of Overland Park.

Kliethermes, demurely chewing, raises her hand while finishing the roll and seizes a teaching moment.

“Never talk with your mouth full, even when someone asks you a question,” she said, explaining the art of the pause.

“Maddi, excellent question. Ask politely to please pass the butter.”

Satisfied with Mrs. K’s answer, Maddi spies the butter on the other side of her table.

“Pass me the butter,” she said to her table partners.

Thinking twice about her command, Maddi softens the request.

“Please, I mean.”

Servers clear salad plates and return with steaming cups of steak soup.

“This yummy soup is hot,” Kliethermes said, soup spoon in hand. “Never blow on it because you might splatter it on yourself or the person next to you.”

“You can’t spit it back into the bowl or wave your hand over it?” asked a curious student.

“No, wait until it cools down,” said Kliethermes, flashing a kind and patient smile. “And if you don’t like it, swallow it. Never spit it back into the bowl, tell your host you don’t like it or ask for something different.”

Kids avert their eyes as Mrs. K surveys the room. They sense a question is imminent.

“How do we eat soup? Does the spoon go toward or away from you?”

“Away!” Several students offered opinions in unison.

“Yes!” Kliethermes beamed. “My grandma taught me this saying, and it helps me remember even today: ‘Just as ships go out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.’ 

The Chisholm Room fills with the sound of spoons clinking against porcelain cups as students test their newfound skill.

Mrs. K perches on a stool in the middle of 20 members of Brownie Girl Scout Troop 340 on a recent afternoon at Parkville’s Union Chapel Elementary School.

Presenting an abbreviated version of the four-week manners course, which she does to different groups around the city, Kliethermes coaches the 7- and 8-year-old scouts on how to stand, walk and sit — “Cross at the ankles — we don’t cross our legs until we’re older.”

She reviews thank-you notes — “Always send within one to two days for a gift” — and how to be a courteous birthday party guest and grooming specifics.

“What do good manners mean?” queries Kliethermes.

Girls chatter excitedly over another.

“Be nice to your brother or sister!” “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” “Always say please and thank you!”

“My mom and dad say not to cut off people in traffic,” says one girl.

“Or yell at another driver,” says another.

Kliethermes acknowledges each answer — reminding the girls it’s not polite to interrupt one another — and poses the next question.

“Why is it important to have good manners?”

“So people will invite you to things and want to be your friend,” answers an eager scout.

“That’s right,” agrees Kliethermes. “Etiquette gives you self confidence, too, and someday, when you’re old enough for a job, it will show an employer that you care about others.”

Sometimes Kliethermes hides bemusement at an innocent remark — especially when the delicate subject of bodily functions inevitably crops up, as it does in today’s session.

“My dad says when you have to toot at the dinner table you can go to the fridge for more ranch dressing,” says a scout, authoritatively. “That way no one will know.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” says Kliethermes graciously, turning her back to busy herself with the place settings example for the upcoming table manners portion, smiling at the three mothers helping in the background.

Composed, Kliethermes turns around to face the Brownie troop.

“Absolutely,” she says. “That’s one smart dad.”

Janis Kliethermes grew up in Pleasantville, Iowa, a town southeast of Des Moines with a population of 1,400.

“My mom, dad, sister and I ate dinner together almost every night,” recalled Kliethermes. “We each sat in the same spot and talked about the day. I honestly don’t remember being corrected for poor manners — my sis, Jolene, and I were pretty civilized.”

Kliethermes’ childhood ritual of breaking bread together is a dramatic departure from how she and her husband, Terry, and daughters Heidi and Megan ate meals.

“Just like lots of parents who shuttle kids and their friends from practices to events to school and a million other places, I was guilty of raising my girls to eat on the go,” she said. “We would roll through a drive-through or stop at the store for a quick pickup of something prepackaged. We ate in shifts.”

Kliethermes regrets the run-and-go lifestyle she weaned her kids on that is even more prevalent in today’s society than when she officially launched Etiquette Kansas City in 2007.

“I have a modeling and talent business, The Agency Models and Talent, that I bought in 2001,” said Kleithermes. “That’s where I began to notice the lack of professionalism — not just with kids, but adults, too.”

The defining moment for Kliethermes was observing her daughters’ friends and their behavior in her own home.

“I started questioning Heidi and Megan: ‘Do you thank your friends’ parents when you leave their houses?’ 

” she said. “What I thought were common sense things just weren’t happening.”

Kliethermes also was uneasy seeing kids raised with a sense of entitlement.

“That’s our world today,” she said. “Go to a restaurant and see how people sometimes treat servers, or behave in the checkout line or drive with road rage. Somehow we feel there’s no need to be nice — and when someone is, it really stands out.”

When Kliethermes couldn’t find an etiquette class in Kansas City for her teenage daughters, she decided to take professional training from a St. Louis-based company and start her own business.

“It was a natural progression from The Agency,” she said. “But another impetus to start Etiquette Kansas City was remembering that when my mom and dad entertained — which they did frequently — my sister and I were always included, unlike today where kids are scooted to another room during a party.”

According to Kliethermes, social situations — such as Etiquette Kansas City’s closing dinner at the Hereford House — are where kids learn to communicate and hone table manners.

“They observe and mature in that area,” she said.

Kliethermes started teaching etiquette to kids from ages 5 to 12, then added teens and finally corporate clients.

“I now instruct people of all ages at all kinds of places — country clubs, synagogues, private schools, churches and businesses,” said Kliethermes, who brushes up on her own skills with annual continuing education classes.

Corporate etiquette is a rapidly growing area of Etiquette Kansas City.

“Business owners know the simple concept of manners makes a huge difference, especially when delivering good customer service,” she said. “Having employees return a phone call, show up on time for a meeting or send a thank-you can help a business succeed in a competitive marketplace. Technology has made doing business much less personal.”

Kliethermes notes it’s never too late for good manners.

“Etiquette is universal. It doesn’t matter your age, where you learn it or where you practice it.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Dr. Deb’s Town Center conference room, Kliethermes stands in front of a table where nine wriggly boys, ages 7 — 10, are about to learn communication with style.

Underneath the table, nine pair of feet madly swing and shake.

Assistant Kathy Dussold of Leawood sits to the side, answering the door to admit a few stragglers to etiquette class.

Taking a deep breath, Kliethermes begins with a pop quiz.

“How many of you practiced what we learned in last week’s confidence and poise class?”

Harry Waltonen, 9, of Blue Springs says he gave his mother, Niki, compliments.

“Terrific, Harry!” Kliethermes compliments the shy young man.

Niki Fatout-Waltonen strongly believes children should learn good manners to help them be more confident in life.

“Manners have fallen by the wayside in today’s society,” she said. “My husband Jason and I had our older son, Drew, take Mrs. K’s class several years ago and it’s helped him. As parents we personally model etiquette for the boys, but it doesn’t always have the same gravity as an instructor.”

Chase Hope adjusts his eyeglasses and looks at the ceiling before answering.

“I opened the door for my mom and sister.”

“Wonderful!” Kliethermes claps her hands and distributes pencils to the group, a cue to discuss thank-you notes.

At the end of the hour-long class, Kliethermes tells the boys to bring a tie next week and wear a collared shirt.

“We’re going to talk about tying ties and grooming such as dental hygiene, washing stinky feet, combing hair,” she says, stepping to a table arranged with personal care tools. “And you’ll each get one of these — nail brush and clippers.”

Several boys look down at their hands, examining their nails.

“Class dismissed!”

Two role models, in addition to her parents, inspired a young Kliethermes to adopt good manners — her grandma Billie and great-aunt Mid, in New Sharon, Iowa.

“They had tea parties with tiny cucumber sandwiches and taught me and my sister everything we needed to know, including how to write a proper thank-you note,” she said.

“Really what I’m teaching — along with do’s and don’ts — is how to respect one another.”

As dinner wraps up at the Hereford House, Kliethermes — who by now has shed her fashionable jacket — does a sweeping visual check of her students. Entree plates where kids practiced their preferred dining style — American or Continental — with steak medallions and chicken breasts are whisked away and replaced by ice cream sundaes topped with maraschino cherries.

Avery Weaver asks what to do with the stem once the cherry has been eaten.

“Leave it in the bowl, not on the table,” answers Kliethermes.

Hands hastily reach for cherry stems abandoned on the linen tablecloths and plunk them into empty bowls. Telltale cherry juice stains are left behind.

Parents arrive for the last 15 minutes of class where student volunteers demonstrate etiquette scenarios — how to stand, pull out chairs, make introductions. Each child receives a certificate, a round of applause and a handshake —“Remember, web to web” — from Mrs. K.

At ceremony’s end, Kliethermes lobs out a final question to graduates.

“We’ve learned lots of things over the past four weeks,” she said, the ear-to-ear grin still fresh as a daisy. “But what’s the most important thing we learned about manners?”

“To be respectful,” said Ein Flynn, 11, of Overland Park. “To everyone.”

Kliethermes bids parents and the newly minted etiquette guru’s goodbye.

“My job here,” she smiled, “is done.”

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