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Hey! Be polite — etiquette is ageless

Senior citizens give tips on the basics of social graces
by: L.E. BASKOW, Melanie Perko, an etiquette expert, teaches people of all ages about polite behavior. But she says the senior citizens she encountered at Mary's Woods at Marylhurst retirement home already possessed ample wisdom about how to treat others.

A new year is upon us, and it's a good time to think about how we treat others.

Melanie Perko, an etiquette expert who has worked with every generation of people in her career, will put on a four-week class for elementary-age children at Southwest Portland's Mary Rieke Elementary School in January. For Perko - who last year focused on seniors, and most recently has concentrated on children - this class is a follow-up to a similar program put on last month. She also has done private sessions with middle-school children.

Her points:

'It's more about daily life,' she says. 'Everyone wants to know the basics, how to speak better, be received better. The 5-year-olds, what parents want is for their children to look people in the eye and not interrupt. … We practiced canned things to say to relatives, like during the holiday season. 'Grandma, oh, you used to love to raise chickens.' … have them think about who will be there, think of a response when they talk to you or pinch your cheek.'

Etiquette 'is for all ages. It never leaves,' she adds. 'It starts at age 5 when you're social and goes through 85.'

Perko also recently did some seminars with parents and posed the question, 'What do you do if a colleague is talking trash about you?' She says: 'Each dad had different answers. One said he'd definitely confront them with humor. Another guy thought he wouldn't make waves. It's also interesting for children to hear that, because children want to know what to do when confronted on the field or in the cafeteria.'

Last summer, Perko put on two classes at the Mary's Woods at Marylhurst retirement home.

'I felt I couldn't teach them anything - they knew it all from wonderful lives,' Perko says. 'We talked about mostly what they learned, what should be tweaked for times today,' such as politically correct terms and adjusting to technology. But the classes also served as an outlet for seniors to express their questions about today's world, in terms of etiquette and how people treat each other.

Young people can learn a lot from the thoughts and ideas of older people, Perko says.

The Tribune sat down with Ruth Jensen and Dallas Cole, both 80-somethings living happy and healthy lives at Mary's Woods, and Lisa Oetken, Mary's Woods wellness assistant, and discussed senior decorum and etiquette in a topic-and-answer format:

Greetings

Jensen: In my time, you had to say, 'May I present (somebody).' Now that's considered formal, you don't do that.

Cole: You always presented the younger person to the older person, a deference to age.

Cole: 'Miss' is the new one (to call women), so you don't differentiate between married and unmarried.

Jensen: But you can be Miss or Mrs. if you want to be.

Cole: I wish (younger) people didn't call me by my first name. That makes me uncomfortable. Like somebody else's grandchildren, I'd rather they say, 'Hello, Miss Dallas.' … My husband gets very annoyed. If a bank teller, a kid with a ring in his ear, says 'There you go Jack' when he hands him cash, Jack will say, 'You may call me Mr. Cole or you may call me Sir, but I've never been introduced to you, you may not call me Jack.' … And another one is 'geezer' - we can call ourselves geezers, but you better not.

Dealing with the elderly, disabled

Jensen: You reach down to someone who is in a wheelchair, be at their level to talk with them. But some of us can't get up after we get down there.

Cole: You don't crouch. You just find another chair, push it over.

Oetken: Generally speaking, a wheelchair is part of their body. You can't assume to give them a helping hand. In public, if a person's struggling to get over a threshold, it would be very impolite to assume we can help them - not everybody wants help. And, if somebody's assisting someone in a wheelchair, don't overlook the person in the wheelchair, if you pose a question to them. You need to talk with that person and not the representative or aide.

Hats

Cole: Is it really OK, if you're with a boy wearing a cap, to ask this child sitting there in the dining room with grandparents, 'Did you forget to take off your cap?' Melanie said they consider this part of their outfit. I'm sorry, whether we went to the theater or dining or wherever, you removed your hat.

Cell phones/Text messaging/E-mail

Cole: (Cell phones) are rude, and dangerous in cars.

Jensen: It's very annoying in a restaurant, doctor's office … people carrying on with their friend, you're trying to keep your voice low. Sorry, I don't have one. I consider (cell phones/text messaging/e-mail) for the youth. Old dogs can't learn new tricks. I like to talk, communicate by telephone or letters. I see children getting smarter and smarter, smarter than I am, but they live in a new age and need (those things). I don't.

Cole: I don't know how to do text messaging. When you get to our age, you don't want to shorten up what you say, you only have so much time, I'm going to dominate the conversation. … And I only answer e-mails. … One of the loveliest things you can do is learn to live in the moment. If you have a moment, it has to be what's happening here. (Cell phones/text/e-mails) strike me as being a terrible waste of time, you're always working on something that's not real. … You don't have eye contact, it's sort of a shield. I have to know you're going to respond - looking down at a keyboard, it could be anybody. I just think that's coo-coo.

Common courtesies

Jensen: Traveling, people are rude. They'll push their way on to the train ahead of people, be the first to in the restaurant to get the best table. … I can't understand discourtesies, indifference.

Cole: How about opening the door for a woman … it used to be what you did. And you always stood up when a woman came in the room, an older woman.

Job titles

Cole: The feminist movement has changed how to refer to job descriptions. You're not a stewardess anymore, it's flight attendant. I still think of them as stewardesses; I had a friend who was a stewardess after the war, I thought it'd be fun. … And, it's 'wait person, or server,' not waitress.

Oetken: We joked about this, but it's 'server' and you can't call the server 'honey' anymore. It's never meant as an insult, but I could picture a scenario where it could be demeaning.

Cole: Most of the (older) people just miss their kids. They would call their daughter 'honey.'

Patience, listening

Jensen: The older you get, the more understanding you are. I'm very aware.

Cole: I think younger people have a different sense of time than we do. They have a lot less attention span than we do, as we want them to. Children have so much new in their lives. Every day is a rush, brings hope for something. When you get to be a grandmother or great-grandmother, you look forward to that one encounter (with a grandchild), it means a lot, that one moment. … I read somewhere the best way to get someone to know you're listening to them is to repeat what they just said. It's like you guessed it. A lady friend of mine said, 'It's boring to sit here with a cast,' and I said back at her, 'Yeah, it's boring to just sit here,' and she said, 'Yes!'

Oetken: I love the idea of making quality time. Being present, everything else can wait. Errands and cell phone calls can wait. They have anticipated the time, and seniors are very good about being present, focused on you. The greatest respect you could show is to do the same.