Why manners matter

In preparation for real-world work environments, during the summer, 14- and 15-year-old high-school freshmen undergo a four-week intensive training in social and work skills: the Summer Bridge Program, or “First Impressions 101,” as 60 Minutes referred to it. In this course, students learn how to give a firm handshake, how to introduce themselves, how to maintain eye contact and smile during a conversation, and how to dress and present themselves for success. I spoke with a rising sophomore from Cristo Rey, Luciana, who enthused: “I’ve never felt more confident in myself and my ability to interact with others. Knowing that I can and have worked with grown professionals makes me encouraged to do so in college and beyond.”

Initiatives such as these are crucial, as national data on college graduation rates for black and minority students demonstrate the need for schools and colleges to do all they can to prepare their students for success: Black students beginning college from 1997 to 2007 were about 20 percent less likely to finish within four years than were their white peers, and Hispanic students were about 10 percent less likely.

As useful as soft skills are in navigating academic institutions, they are indispensable to success in the working world. Whether making deals over power lunches in the upper echelons of business or getting jobs via the referral system on which many blue-collar tradespeople rely, workers depend on their social networks — made possible through having good manners — to achieve success.

Some might claim that emphasizing social skills among ethnic-minority students is nothing more than cultural colonialism. After all, who is anyone to assert that Western and predominately white codes of conduct are superior to those of other cultures or minority communities? But embracing the social skills necessary to succeed in the culture in which one lives does not require the abandonment of previous cultural and social identities.