Let them drink tea

A Hartford, Conn., pageant program teaches young women to succeed in business by hosting tea parties.

By Catherine Price
Published February 20, 2007 7:58PM (EST)

Here's an interesting way to help young women succeed in the business world in 2007: Teach them how to host a tea party.

No, I'm not kidding. According to the Hartford Courant, contestants in the Miss Hartford High Pageant are being trained in tea party etiquette -- not to win the pageant, but to help them succeed in their careers. They learn to eat with small bites, speak with their mouths empty, carry a saucer when walking with a teacup and sit elegantly.

The organizer, Esther Thomas, explained to the Courant that she chose to have a tea ceremony because teas are becoming increasingly common as business events. (Side question: I work from home, so I don't know much about such things -- but are teas really taking the place of lunch meetings?)

"'I wanted the ladies to understand that no matter where they are in the world, they can socialize,'" she's quoted as saying.

Let me take a step back and say that I am not opposed to manners. Or tea parties. In fact, I wish my life included more of both. Nor is this tea program completely random -- three years ago a former school board chairman asked Hartford business leaders what they thought students should be taught to help them succeed in the business world, and "etiquette" was one of the top answers. And finally, while the current program is only for girls, the organizers hope to include boys in future programs.

But still. There's something that smacks a little too much of finishing school in this modern version of, um, a finishing school. First of all, even if the program were open to boys, I find it hard to believe that they'd sign up in the same numbers as their female classmates. (As far as I can tell, finger sandwiches and beauty pageants have yet to achieve gender parity.) And as for the idea that you must learn to be a "lady" in order to succeed in society? Uh, sure -- if it were 50 years ago and we were trying to come up with the plotline for a Broadway musical. Unfortunately, it's 2007, and someone already wrote "My Fair Lady."

The real issue at hand seems to be related to socioeconomics -- not gender. The business leaders mentioned above also talked about "the woeful table manners, style of dress, speech, attendance, punctuality and overall behavior of many Hartford teenagers that made it hard for them to succeed in internships or entry-level jobs," according to the Courant. That assessment has nothing to do with gender; nor does it prescribe tea parties. It has more to do with the fact that kids who don't grow up exposed to business etiquette are at a disadvantage compared with those who do. Professionalism is a skill set worth teaching, as are the other characteristics business leaders found lacking, like being able to work as a member of a team and to "fit in with dominant business culture." But cucumber sandwiches need not be involved.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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