Charm School

Face it: We're all a bit nerdy, judging from Dilbert cartoons. But some engineers and scientists are particularly bad, thinking that "charm" only refers to a type of subatomic particle.

To combat the problem, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology established its Stratton School for Charm. For one afternoon during mid-winter break, it seeks to improve MIT students' social skills. Classes include "How to Tell Someone Something They'd Rather Not Hear" and "Buttering Up Big Shots."

Each session lasts 15-30 minutes, and students receive one credit for every completed class. Anyone earning six credits is awarded a "Charm School Bachelor's Degree;" master's and PhDs are also given. Graduation ceremonies include a band playing "Pomp and Circumstance" on kazoo.

Charm school coordinator Katie O'Dair said sessions on business etiquette are the most popular. (She added, "We also get a lot of people signed up for 'Flirting and Dating 101.' ")

O'Dair said the program is a lighthearted way to teach students many of whom are foreign-born about American social conventions. They learn what to do when confronted with a formal dinner hosted by a potential employer, for example. (The school also teaches Americans about dining etiquette overseas: Never blow your nose at the table in Asia.)

Consequently, 'Table Manners' is the school's hottest class. Students are instructed where to sit, which fork to use, and not to "divorce" the salt and pepper. "If someone asks for one of the items, hand both of them over. If they need the one, they're likely to need the other," she said.

Most sessions are taught by MIT faculty and fellow students, but some classes feature full-time protocol experts. This year, a guest speaker from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts showed slides of what NOT to do in museums such as hang coats on statues, or stick used chewing gum on picture frames.

About 1,000 students enrolled this year. From a few sessions in 1993, charm school has developed into a full-fledged educational series, complete with labs and course curricula (available at http://web.mit.edu/slp/charm/index.html).

Does O'Dair consider herself the 'Miss Manners' of MIT? "Absolutely not," she said. "But I know a whole lot more than I used to."

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