Jodi Rubtchinsky Smith ’90, the founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, concedes that she usually doesn’t tell people what she does for a living when she meets them. At the same time, she adds, “I’m not your grandmother’s etiquette consultant.”
“Manners evolve,” Smith says. And as long as the principles of thoughtfulness and consideration are a part of the culture, Smith says, it’s not really her job as an etiquette consultant to judge one set of manners superior to another. Instead, the mission of her business, which she founded 13 years ago, is helping people navigate the complex world of modern manners.
That Boston-based business is thriving, and Smith is becoming a recognized expert. She appeared on MSNBC to talk about “How to Weather the Post-Election Emotional Storm,” and on the CBS Early Show to present “The Office Party Survival Guide.” She appears regularly on Fox 25 News in Boston and she writes a weekly column in the Salem (Mass.) News, and a free monthly e-newsletter of etiquette tips.
Her list of seminars is growing, although Gracious Dining—a two-and-a-half hour course for professionals who interact with clients over meals—remains her bread and butter.
Not always one for the spotlight, Smith was a shy and uncertain adolescent who was more comfortable with social observation than participation. She began reading etiquette books to master the bright smile and active listening that she observed in popular classmates.
A psychology major at Rochester, she was inspired by professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who developed a theory in motivational psychology called Self-Determination Theory that is especially attuned to the effects of social environments on human behavior. Smith credits her attention to cultural context to these two mentors.
“My background in psychology is really what sets me apart from other etiquette consultants,” Smith says.
Several years ago, Smith was joined part time by her Rochester classmate and longtime friend, Marianne Seidman Cohen ’89, who tapped the youth market with a “Manners for Minors” program. Consisting of a series of interactive seminars targeted to age groups that span preschool to high school, Manners for Minors serves daycares and libraries, but also, Cohen adds, parents who “find it helps when their kids hear about manners from someone else.”
The two women met when they both joined Phi Sigma Sigma and lived next door in the sorority’s corner of Lovejoy Hall. They remained close after graduation, and Cohen recalls that Smith “often dreamed out loud” about having her join Mannersmith.
But to add a business relationship on top of a close friendship—and one in which Smith would hire Cohen and become her boss—demanded the creation of a new system of etiquette between the two. When Smith finally convinced Cohen to come on board, they sat down for dinner, Cohen recalls, and talked about how they would handle conflicts.
In the end, Smith says, they produced a written agreement. Of course, it’s flexible.
“Marianne can get away with saying things to me that you probably wouldn’t ordinarily say to a boss,” Smith admits.
The two launched Manners for Minors after Cohen accompanied Smith to one of Smith’s seminars for children. Cohen was captivated—so much so that she wanted to devote all her time to youth programs.
“On the way back, we decided we were really onto something,” says Cohen.
Today, Cohen travels throughout the Boston area with the Manners for Minors mascot, “Ettie the Etiquette Elephant,” a stuffed elephant that helps Cohen teach the “magic words of manners”—the all-important “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me”—to grade-schoolers. But she has also had some memorable teen clients, such as a small group of high school boys whose parents had ordered Gracious Dining “to go.”
The parents arranged a pot luck dinner, held before prom season in one of their homes, during which Cohen walked the boys through the meal, and ended the session by requiring each of them to write her a thank you note.
Cohen believes that the teenagers were probably initially embarrassed to be taking her seminar. But in surprisingly sincere thank you notes, Cohen saw a real appreciation for her lesson.
For better or worse, both women say, our ability to succeed professionally and personally is always determined to some extent by our mastery of the “soft skills” of interpersonal relations.