Since Thelma “T.” Hanawalt opened her Traverse City etiquette and manners business, she’s been flooded with clients: Men looking for better ways to present themselves to potential love interests, young graduates needing poise and polish when interviewing for their first jobs, moms exasperated with sassy kids. She gives them confidence and the inner power to thrive in any situation, all from a lovely, sunny brick alcove surrounded by pressed tea towels and her grandmother’s Wedgwood at Traverse City’s Mercato.

In tough times, the mood can get tense, especially in the workplace. What are your tips for maintaining grace under pressure?

Slow down and think about how others feel and what they need to be successful. If others around us are successful, we are too. Tension is eased. When I worked in Manhattan at Columbia Preparatory School, a few other teachers and I developed a list of reminders, or Signs of Civility, that would actually be a handy-dandy tool for any organization.

As we enter wedding and bridal shower season, there are always question marks about what’s appropriate. It always starts with the invitation, letting people know exactly what they’ll be enjoying and what’s expected.

So if a bride’s dilemma is whether or not to invite children?

It’s her wedding. Make sure the invitation is just to the mother and father and not to the family. No other explanation is needed. You create more problems by asking family members, “What should I do?” That opens it up for conversation. Then you risk overdoing it or offending by not taking someone’s advice.

What kinds of civility would you love to bring back?

Neighborly traditions. I’m a fan of a good ole neighborhood softball game with a cookout. No one needs the pressure of being the organizer. Just get everyone inspired, choose a date and get everyone together.

What unexpected ways have you helped people?

I’ll get calls, “Mrs. T., I need you, my daughter is so sassy.” And I help the daughter to speak respectfully. I feel like the new Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle! I like to help young people before they go off to college with the kinds of do’s and don’ts that parents may have a hard time communicating, but that make sense to the child once we talk about them.

Where did you get your own manners tutelage?

I grew up in Georgia, living on the same property that my great-grandparents did, who came from England and farmed the land. My family was very liberal, but because of our background as southerners our household was formal and very much based on manners, civility and etiquette.

Do you remember any of those childhood lessons?

My grandmother had summer tea parties for my sisters, cousins and me. We’d have little Coca-Colas and eat tea sandwiches, but it was also a time to practice making everyone feel welcome, spending time with each guest, refraining from washing down our food with Coca-Cola.

What wisdom are you leaving with elementary school kids?

Family manners like how to share a bathroom, behave at family dinners. Friendship manners, too: How to meet new people, how to be a good friend and how to behave during a sleepover. And table manners.

What about cell phone manners?

When you are with other people it needs to be put away. It is not polite to be taking calls and text messaging when you are engaged in conversation. When you hear that inner voice saying, this isn’t polite, listen.

Discover More

Read Mrs. T.’s Signs of Civility.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski