Richmond's etiquette expert can name hundreds of ways to look boorish. But she'll also explain how to avoid them. 

Miss Manners

eet the woman who thinks etiquette guru Emily Post is "a bit of a slack."

Katherine Barrett, founder and director of the Sabot School of Etiquette, calls herself a "hard-liner" when it comes to minding one's manners.

So your spine snaps straight immediately when you shake hands with this slender woman wearing pearls and an impeccable black-and-ivory suit.

And you start to sweat a little when you see the elaborate place settings in her dining room, an arsenal of cutlery gleaming beside each china plate.

But when Barrett grins, you realize she's a little more forgiving than you'd expect: "If you spill your drink, hey, it's OK," she says. "It happens to everybody."

She loves to tell stories about dining embarrassments. One of her favorite words is "fwinggg!" — used to illustrate the midair flight of food when one carelessly stabs a carrot or tosses a soup spoon into the bowl.

Of course, when you ask Barrett to recount some of her own mishaps in manners, the worst crime she can come up with is forgetting a name at a social function. And once upon a time, she didn't know how to use a finger bowl — "I used to stick my napkin in it," she confesses.

No longer. Now the 40-year-old Richmond native is an etiquette expert, trained and certified by The Protocol School of Washington. One year ago, she founded her own school in her home, an old country estate in Manakin-Sabot.

There, she teaches students, ages 8 to 22, proper manners — why one should never plunk a soda can on a tablecloth, for instance, or blow one's nose in a napkin. Pupils learn how to greet judges and queens. They learn how to sit up straight — even if Barrett has to use a napkin to tie an exceptional slumper's shoulders to his chair.

Nor is Barrett afraid to tackle unsavory table routines, like removing gristle from one's mouth. It's possible to surreptitiously maneuver it out with a fork, she says, but "you have to be really confident and really good."

Confidence comes easily when etiquette's learned young. Children ages 8 to 10 are the most impressionable, Barrett says: "They're little sponges." She displays her collection of thank-you notes in the dining room. One reads "I had fun at edikit school. I went to New York City for Christmas and used my manners. Your friend, Chad."

Teen-agers are less enthusiastic. Barrett says she often hears them complain, "I don't need to go to this stupid school."

And adults? They're eager to learn, Barrett says, yet at the same time may not realize they need etiquette training until a) someone tactfully recommends it or b) they embarrass themselves in public.

The latter is more common, apparently. Barrett has a rich treasury of tales about prominent figures' faux pas — like the young congressman who usurped the honor of the first toast from President Clinton. Or the junior partner in a law firm who drank his finger bowl — an accessory commonly misused, Barrett explains.

"I've seen some people bathe — like this," Barrett says. She demonstrates scooping water from the tiny bowl to douse her forearms. "If you need to wash your hands, go to the bathroom!" she adds in a stage whisper. "And for God's sake, don't drink your finger bowl."

In the name of preventing such catastrophes, Barrett is holding her first corporate etiquette class on Oct. 16. Titled "Dine Like a Diplomat," it takes place at the Commonwealth Park Suites Hotel on Bank Street. Her offer is this: During a reception and a four-course butlered luncheon from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., she'll teach anyone how to behave impeccably while meeting, greeting and eating. And the $295 session is held in a secluded room. "No one will ever know you went," she promises.

Barrett offers more than pricey private lessons, however. She hopes to begin teaching discounted classes in public schools, to show that etiquette isn't a luxury but a life skill.

Her motto is, "You don't have to have money to have manners." Etiquette rules apply to fast-food meals the same as fancy dinners. "We tell them to treat their chairs like church pews," she says. And for napkins, "you're supposed to treat paper like linen."

Barrett herself has seen both sides of the social spectrum. "I was a child of privilege," she says with a wry smile. Growing up on Tuckahoe and Cary Street roads, her life was riding lessons, cotillion and classes at St. Catherine's. That life ended when Barrett was 13. Her parents went bankrupt and eventually divorced.

But Barrett bounced back, graduating from Sweet Briar College and then working at a salon in New York City. She returned to Richmond in 1987 for a succession of jobs, including bridal consulting at The Hampton House and Schwarzchild Jewelers, and managing sales at the English Garden restaurant.

Barrett will soon herself be a bride; she will marry her fiance, Jim Baker, in January.

Guests at the wedding may fear they won't live up to the standards of the "etiquette lady," Barrett admits. But they have nothing to worry about when she's off-duty.

"You never correct someone," she says, "unless they're paying you."

That would just be bad manners.


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