LAURA MURPHY meets Coleraine born woman Sheila Keast, whose classes on the art of etiquette have gone down a storm in the States
PERHAPS unsurprisingly, it was during a lunch date with friends that Sheila Keast experienced her ‘light bulb’ moment - and decided there was a gap in the market for etiquette training, and that she could be the lady to carry it out.
“We were all sitting at the table, and when the food came I was the only person who picked up my knife and fork - everyone else just picked up their fork and started cutting their food with it,” recalls the mother-of-three.
“It was like an earthquake at the table, it started to shake and the water glasses started to spill a little. It was at that point I thought, ‘OK, I have to do something’.”
And the Coleraine born 56-year-old, who lives in Henderson, Nevada (a suburb of Las Vegas) did just that; having already been running her dinner party business Perfect Host for some time, she decided to add a further string to her bow by becoming a certified etiquette trainer.
Today, she offers her services to children and adults alike, and in particular, war veterans, who are making the often challenging transition from active duty to civilian life. She was inspired by a a news story on returning veterans and thought about bad habits formed or worsened during active duty.
“They don’t have time to sit and eat properly and may be eating quickly (and) out of a container with their hands,” she said.
As well as teaching veterans basic dining skills all over again - after their time spent roughing it on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, concerns like behavioural refinements would have no doubt taken second priority to basic survival - she also helps them with interview and dress skills to aid them in their attempts to get back into the swing of ‘normal’ life, and basic composition skills necessary to mind one’s Ps and Qs in important social situations
“They go off to war and come back, and we often forget about them,” she says. “I just feel they gave so much, and I want to give back.”
Sheila’s intentions are certainly honourable - and somehow fascinating. Yes, the majority of us have grown up with good manners having been instilled in us, but I’m sure you would not be alone if you were to admit to being stumped on the odd social occasion as to which is the salad knife, or how best to impress your new boss over a corporate lunch.
So I’m enthralled by the prospect of talking to someone like Sheila, who is an expert on the subject.
“My husband John had an opportunity to come out and work in San Franciso so we moved out here in January 1990,” she tells me, her Ulster accent still very much in evidence, in spite of the fact that she has been based in the USA for 20 years.
“It was supposed to be just for a two-year-trip - and here we are!
“We found there were lots of opportunities for the kids, (the couple have three) they all graduated college and got good jobs - it was the perfect place for them to grow up.”
Sheila, who grew up in the Heights area of Coleraine and was a student at Killowen Primary School and Coleraine Secondary School, says she loves cooking and entertaining in general, and “always had a passion for etiquette” which stemmed from her upbringing.
She reveals that as a child, she was sent by her mother to election classes, Irish dancing, choir and a flurry of other social activities, but it was only when she reached adulthood herself that she realised the benefits of having been involved in such pastimes.
“I used to think, ‘why is she sending me to all these things?’, but I realised as I got older that she was really preparing me for the future, and that’s what I tell a lot of the children (who come to me).
“I think it gives them a lot of self-esteem and self-confidence, and it helps them walk a little taller as well. It makes them feel better about themselves.”
It’s been almost two years now since Sheila got her license and set up her Sheila Keast Etiquette, and to date it’s been “going strong and steady.”
She adds: “To be honest, I’m just totally overwhelmed by the response I get. I tell people what I do and they say they’ve never met anyone who does this.”
Sheila’s dining curriculum includes English and American eating styles for a three-course meal or tea time, and during her classes she will address everything from elbow and napkin placement, to proper posture and use of table settings.
For veterans facing job interviews, she has lesson plans regarding proper dress and personal presentation, and after her students have (hopefully) landed the job, she can teach them how to conduct themselves properly at social outings.
“If I have children coming, it’s normally a four or five week course and we start off with table manners, how to use a knife and fork properly etc. A lot of parents here want their children to be able to eat in what we call the European style, which is holding a knife and fork the way we were brought up to do, and not cutting their food and then setting their knife down and picking up their fork to eat.
“We do proper place settings, and I take them through all the different aspects of food from cutting to how to eat pasta properly, how to use their napkin properly.”
Away from the table, Sheila also teaches children etiquette regarding communication: “This past week I had three little girls here and one is an ambassador for her school - she is going to London and Ireland in June, so she’s learning the proper handshakes, how to stand properly, how to greet people, all of that.”
Is the practise of teaching your children formal etiquette something which has faded from the family home, I wonder out loud.
Sheila believes so - not through any lack of desire on the part of parents, but simply because the reality is that the ultra-fast pace of modern life has superseded the amount of time dedicated to such habits.
And she says this is the case in the UK as well as in the States.
“When I talk to friends at home they say the same thing - sometimes they’re a little lackadaisical in what they do with their child. I think fast food and take-out food has a part to play in that as well. When I ask children who come here how often they sit at the table and have dinner with their parents, they say, ‘well we don’t because mummy and daddy are working two jobs.’
“So they are missing out on those conversation skills.”
She relates one particularly poignant and special experience she had with a student.
“I had a little girl who came last year - it was getting close to Thanksgiving and we were discussing dinner. Her parents were divorced so she would always go to her grandma’s for Thanksgiving. I said to her, ‘what is it you’d like for Thanksgiving?’ and she said, ‘I’d like daddy to sit at the table with us.’
“She said, ‘daddy never sits at the table with us, he eats his meals in his room.’
“So we talked about it and I said, ‘why don’t you write him a little note?’, because I always teach the children and adults that when someone gives you a gift, you write a thank-you note.
“I told her to put her feelings down on paper and tell him what it would mean to her, so she did.”
Added Sheila in delight: “She was only nine years old. I didn’t see her until after Thanksgiving and when she came back for her next session, she was so excited because her daddy had come down and sat at the table for Thanksgiving and it meant the world to her.”
War veterans are particularly close to Sheila’s heart, and have been since she watched a TV show about troops returning one evening.
“I thought, ‘I just have to do something.’ Because we all support the troops, we all have family who have been out there in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I just felt that we have to give back in some way or another.”
The Ulster native has also provided etiquette classes at Lomie Heard Elementary School, a military school on Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas for over 170 children.
And as well as the troops themselves, Sheila is also helping other people connected to various jobs in the forces,
“One lady came to me - she had been in Afghanistan and Iraq and she was dealing with supplies out there. She was invited to dinner with one of the big Arab sheiks and she was just really confused when she sat down at this table and didn’t know what to do.
“So when she came back, that was her first priority. She contacted me and I actually worked with her on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and we got her sitting at the table and holding her knives and forks properly, so when she goes back to Afghanistan at least she will feel prepared for that.”
And I think we can all raise our china tea cups to that sentiment.
n To find out more about Sheila, visit www.sheilakeast.com