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Etiquette Expert: Teens Don’t Know How to Talk to Adults

Kids need to learn crucial social and personal skills so they can successfully engage in real life

Elaine Swann, etiquette coach, in her living room
Courtesy Elaine Swann

​Call me old fashioned but I think there’s still value in eye contact, in body language, in the ability to make meaningful conversation. Unfortunately, most of the teens I encounter don’t seem to agree. Verbal in-person interaction feels increasingly foreign and uncomfortable to them. They’d almost always rather text or interact through social media apps, even when they’re physically together sometimes. More frustrating is seeing teenagers who cannot carry on a proper conversation with someone outside their peer group. What I’m seeing is a shocking number of teens who don’t know how to talk to adults.​

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​I think about yesteryear and being out shopping with my parents, for instance. If they saw someone at a store, they would stop and I would stop, and I had to be present and listen and stand up straight and talk. Now almost every teenager in that situation will disengage and slouch over their phones. Teenagers think it’s hilarious when I tell them that when I called my friends at home as a kid, I had to speak to my friends’ parents first. I had to know how to address the mom or dad respectfully and ask and answer a few questions and also be mindful of the time of day: Good morning, Mrs. So-and-So... That was then. Now? Are you kidding me? Teenagers go around adults completely. They don’t even come to the door when they’re picking up a friend. They just text the word “here” and the friend comes outside.​

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​In the last couple years, we’ve taken steps backwards. Because of COVID, the handshake has disappeared. Young people became much more glued to their screens. They got more comfortable isolating rather than being together. I helped coach a young lady for her first job interview recently, and honestly it was horrifying. She couldn’t look me in the eye. She answered questions with one or two words, and much of it was casual slang or text speak. It took concentrated effort to get her to stop using the word like, as in, So, I was, like, really nervous and she was, like, really upset.​

Because of COVID, the handshake has disappeared.

​Teenagers don’t want to hear this. They’re going to shrug and huff and puff. But I think it’s on those of us who grew up in earlier times to show the way. One simple practice is to include teenagers in adult conversations and teach them to put away their devices and use complete declarative sentences. When someone asks, What grade are you in? Don’t just say 11th. Say, I’m in the 11th grade or I’m a junior this year. And while it can be scary to engage beyond the screen for a lot of young people, we have to push them past the awkwardness. I tell teenagers they need to listen when adults are talking to them, and ask questions based on what’s being shared. Oh, you’re from Orlando? What’s it like living near Disneyworld? Do you go there often? It must be amazing living in a place with weather like that. It can feel like an uphill battle but children are sponges and they’re eager to learn. We just have to make sure that we are doing our due diligence to provide them with the best tools for their future.

Elaine Swann is an etiquette expert who coaches teens at The Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California​

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