MIT's Charm School teaches bookworms about social graces

MIT's Charm School teaches some of the country's brightest students the rules of etiquette.

Social graces are just as important to success as mastering astrophysics or engineering. But how do you take someone who's grown up in the world of pocket protectors and get them thinking about suits, bow ties and the proper way to hold a wine glass, be it of red or white?

To help the next generation of nerd overlords be as socially savvy as they are smart, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs an annual day of etiquette classes it calls Charm School.

Founded in 1993, Charm School just celebrated its 20th birthday with classes in alcohol and gym etiquette, how to dress for work (for men and for women) and how to visit a contemporary art museum. There are also classes on how to make a charming first impression, the right way to tweet and even how to dance at weddings.

"We're giving our students the tools to be productive members of society, to be the whole package," Alana Hamlett of MIT's Student Activities and Leadership Office told the Los Angeles Times. "It gets them thinking about who they are and what their impact and effect is, whether they're working on a team in an engineering company, or in a small group on a project, or interviewing for a job."

Because, as Charm School's course listing says, "What you do or don't do in the interview can make the difference in getting the job."

Related: Charm school: 8 secrets of charismatic stars

This year's Charm School was held on Feb. 1. Students were free to drop in and participate in any of the 20-minute mini-courses being offered that day. In addition to the charm sessions, a semiformal etiquette dinner and a dating etiquette workshop were offered earlier in the week.

Students who participated in 10 of the mini-courses were awarded doctorates of charm.

Jaclyn Belleville of Los Angeles was one of this year's charm doctors, "who learned among other things that she should not wear open-toed shoes to a job interview," the Times reported.

"It's nice to have the opportunity to learn this stuff and to have it explained, instead of just stumbling across these issues," Belleville told the paper.

And the free food didn't hurt. Computational biology graduate student Asa Adadey said the free meal was a draw. He learned not to cut all his meat at once before eating it. "Who knows? Down the line I may find myself at a formal dinner," he said.

MIT isn't the only science-focused school that offers students lessons in manners. On the opposite coast, Caltech students can take Manners 101 "in preparation for the post-Caltech world of business receptions and dinner parties," the Times reports.

Meanwhile, all students, faculty, alumni and staff are able to attend Charm School, because as MIT says, Charm School isn't just for nerds.

"The classes we teach are designed for everyone, and we feel that we all have something to learn about etiquette, manners, communication, and personal skills. The nerd stereotype is not only misleading, it does not begin to capture the diverse, dynamic community that we have here at MIT. The bottom line is that not everyone receives this kind of instruction, either at home or in school, so we feel they are important life skills for us to pass on to the community," says the Charm School website.


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