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To the manners born

Sheila Armstrong

Your mother may have admonished you for talking with your mouth full or putting your elbows on the table, but there’s so much more to manners than that. Etiquette is really “being thoughtful about yourself and others,” says Sheila Armstrong. She learned about manners from her grandmother Cookie Mae, a University of Wisconsin graduate who taught elocution in Superior, Wisconsin. “For her, it was important to be precise in everything from dining etiquette to basic thoughtfulness toward others,” says Armstrong, a member of the Rotary Club of Houston. Armstrong has appeared on numerous TV shows, and her Little Book of Etiquette: Tips on Socially Correct Dining was first published in 1993.

THE ROTARIAN: Why did you write The Little Book of Etiquette?

ARMSTRONG: I ran an executive search firm. In the early 1990s, I had two candidates within three months of each other who were each on the verge of being offered a position with an incredible salary and benefits, but neither of them got the offer — because they were dining slobs. The first candidate ordered spaghetti and slurped up the noodles, allowing tomato sauce to splash on both sides of his face — and then he forgot to wipe away the sauce. And when the second candidate was taken to dinner, he drank three glasses of wine. It made me so mad that I interviewed 500 people and wrote a book.

TR: How did the rules of etiquette first arise?

ARMSTRONG: The first notes we have on etiquette come from 2400 B.C. in Egypt. One piece of advice could be translated as something like “when your boss laughs, laugh with him.” The use of the word “etiquette” with its contemporary meaning comes from France and is often traced to the time of Louis XIV.

Bad manners can have real consequences.

TR: What tips do you have for Rotarians?

ARMSTRONG: If you want to ask someone to volunteer for a project, do it away from your Rotary meeting. Ask the person to coffee or dinner — and tell them in advance why you would like to talk with them.

At Rotary meetings, I’ve been at tables where nobody talked or where I was ignored because I was a visitor. When you have someone you don’t know at your club, ask them what projects they’re involved in. That starts a conversation.

If you’re traveling for a Rotary project or event, research the etiquette in your destination. Start practicing how people dine there, for instance, and how you should offer and accept a business card. But remember that if someone is visiting your club and they goof up your local customs, it’s gracious not to point it out.

TR: The world is so casual today. Does etiquette still matter?

ARMSTRONG: Bad manners can have real consequences. One day, my father called to tell me that my mother was not feeling well. I lived in Austin, Texas, 100 miles away. I wanted to drive safely but quickly. On a narrow two-lane road, a driver with road rage refused to let me pass for 30 minutes. When I finally reached my parents’ door, Daddy opened it up and said, “Sheila, darling, I am sorry, your mother died five minutes ago.”

It felt like part of my life had ended, and all because of that driver. So I decided to write a book on driving: Buckle Up, Stay Alert: Driving Tips for Adults and Teens. It will include information about the rules of the road and tips on how patience can help you be a better driver.


• Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

• This story originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

Global etiquette

Rotarians often connect with people from different cultures. Here, members of Rotary’s Global Communications team — our translators, interpreters, and all-around international experts — offer a few etiquette tips from their native countries.

Dziękuję ci

When getting off an elevator in Poland, say “thank you” to your fellow riders.



In Brazil, call people by their first names. There are very few instances when you would use surnames — such as when more than one person in a classroom or office has the same name.


Hallo, Herr Müller

In Germany, however, do not address a person who is not a friend or longtime acquaintance by their first name. Instead, address them as Mr./Ms. Last Name.


Mucho gusto en conocerte

In Peru, kiss a woman on the cheek when you are introduced to her by a friend. Two men always shake hands.


Wie geht’s?

Ich bin müde und mürrisch und könnte ein wenig Schlaf gebrauchen...

Germans don’t consider the phrase “How are you?” to be a simple greeting; people will think you really want to know, and will answer honestly.


In Korea, don’t pick up rice or soup bowls from the table when you’re eating —but in Japan and China, it’s appropriate to do so.

And when drinking alcohol with Koreans, do not fill your own glass; your fellow diners are supposed to fill it for you. If you see that someone’s glass is empty, offer to refill it.


Bow, don’t hug, as a greeting in Japan.

And don’t talk on the phone on public transportation — it’s considered rude.