When new acquaintances learn what Erika Preval does for a living, they react physically. “People automatically stiffen; there’s a visible change in posture,” says the founder of Charm Etiquette, a one-woman training ground for gracious living. Preval’s equable face betrays the slightest eye roll. “Manners are supposed to make people feel more comfortable, not less, but everyone thinks I will force them to walk with a book on their head.”
Pishposh. Preval is busily updating the stuffy image of charm school with a relaxed, democratic, and forward-looking spirit. “I’m qualified to teach cotillion, but what good is that when people are deciding entire relationships by swiping their fingers left or right on a screen?” she says. “I meet people where they are and go from there.”
A debutante in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, before coming to Atlanta to attend Spelman College, Preval interned on Wall Street; worked in Atlanta at JETRO, the Japanese trade organization, where deference is an art form; and honed her tastes as a personal shopper for Tiffany & Co. at Phipps Plaza before earning certification through the Etiquette & Leadership Institute in Athens. Modeling herself as a “hip Mary Poppins,” she launched Charm Etiquette in 2013 for children and young adults. Students develop style savvy at Neiman Marcus (“A-line dresses and pencil skirts flatter most body types”). Girls can also take classes that teach them to garden, practice yoga, or concoct a simple syrup. “Learning table etiquette was fun,” gushes 11-year-old graduate Layla Johnson.
Now Preval is launching Social Studies, which she bills as Atlanta’s only “finishing school” for adults. The curriculum includes a cocktail party, a ladies luncheon, and wine tastings. Also expect instruction on the arrangement of charcuterie platters, ordering the right bottle for a group, and properly exchanging business cards, along with the finer points of cigars (avoid an extended column of ash) and whiskey (no ice; “some purists don’t want to dilute that $40 hit of bourbon”). Prospective students include ambitious junior execs, corporate spouses, and aspiring politicos.
Southerners, she notes, are more likely than other Americans to say “ma’am” and “sir,” but the exigencies of modern life have caught up with even us. “We’re no longer instructing ladies to host teas with friends but ensuring they’re primed to handle themselves in the boardroom.”
For teaching venues, she partners with local businesses. Younger students learn the protocols of dining at St. Cecilia, not the Piedmont Driving Club. “I’m trying to get away from the idea that etiquette equals perfection,” she says. “Country clubs are a little too ‘perfect’ for what I do.”
Generally, smartphones do not belong at these well-set tables, she says, but there are exceptions. “If you ask and receive permission beforehand about accepting an important call, that’s okay. Your attention always should focus on the person sitting across from you,” she says. “I want etiquette to evolve to remain relevant and encourage thoughtfulness in lieu of its sometimes elitist undertones.” In other words, you may bring your iPad without fear that she will make you walk while balancing it on your head.
This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.