Move Over, Miss Manners (if you please)
Etiquette expert Jodi R. R. Smith is living the dream and loving a life shaped by Phi Sig sisterhood
February 14, 2010
EVER HEARD OF JODI R. R. SMITH? If you haven’t ’til now, trust us: It’s just a matter of time.
The author of two books, with a third debuting in 2011, Jodi can regularly been seen on TV programs like NBC’s Today show, Fox News or the CBS Early Show. She’s often quoted in the nation’s most prestigious newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. You’ve probably perused an article in Real Simple magazine or Martha Stewart Living (gasp! - that’s when you know you’ve hit the big time) and seen her name alongside those matriarchal mavens of etiquette Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) and reps from the revered Emily Post Institute.
At age 41, Jodi is becoming quite famous for her expertise in – nay, passion for – all things etiquette. She’s the fresh, young face in a time-honored field many in the blogosphere have lately tried to malign, calling it stuffy, outdated and potentially irrelevant in today’s fast-paced, tech-obsessed society.
Ask Jodi her take on etiquette, however, and you’ll quickly see why she’s become such a media darling in recent years:
Etiquette is for everyone, not just the stiff upper crust of society, she says. Yes, some etiquette focuses on which forks to use at fancy dinners, or learning how to write a proper thank-you card. But if that’s all it were, then Jodi –
a social creature through and through – likely wouldn’t be in this line of work, and she certainly wouldn’t be a nationally renowned advocate on the issue.
Today’s etiquette, she says, is all about one thing: making people feel as comfortable as possible in every setting and situation. It’s about using certain techniques and tools to maximize social interactions for the most positive impact – not just for networking, not just to give you a leg up in your career, but because it’s the best, most rewarding way for humans to connect.
“Manners matter,” Jodi says. “The faster our society continues to move forward, the more we’ll need good manners and respectful interactions with everyone around us – co-workers, friends, strangers, family. Everyone. Without etiquette, society doesn’t work.”
When we caught up with Jodi recently (which isn’t easy, as she’s often on the go), she was returning from a special exhibit preview for a museum near Boston. There, she said, she’d met several people who could quite likely become clients of Mannersmith, the Salem-based company she founded in 1996 to provide etiquette seminars and other services to corporations, nonprofit organizations, universities and more.
“It was a great event,” she says with real enthusiasm, describing enough of what she saw to make you wish you’d been there with her, too. “I really think one of these contacts will turn into something.”
It might surprise you to learn she isn’t talking about money. She’s talking about building relationships (one of the most valuable commodities, by her way of thinking) – which is absolutely amazing considering who Jodi was shortly before she joined Phi Sigma Sigma:
Not only a shy young woman, but “painfully shy” (her own words). The cute, quiet girl in high school who had friends, but was so introverted, she didn’t attend any of her proms. All that started to change when she stumbled on a book that changed her life forever:
Judith Martin’s “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.”
“Back then, I’d rather have a root canal than meet someone new,” Jodi says with a laugh. “But I was drawn to this book, this topic, in a way I can’t describe. I think it was the word ‘excruciatingly’ that first caught my attention – because that’s how it felt for me to be social.”
It was as big as a phone book. (The most recent version, published in 2005, tops 860 pages.) But Jodi was hooked. “I decided being shy in high school hadn’t been so much fun,” she explains. “I saw the popular kids, and their charisma, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to have more fun, and I was determined to turn things around in college.”
She did. Initially interested in biology, Jodi started classes at the University of Rochester in upstate New York with the idea of becoming a scientist. But it soon became clear to her that the courses she enjoyed most involved psychology. So, she changed her major to motivational psychology – a move that proved pivotal to her future career.
Even more influential was her decision to join Phi Sigma Sigma’s Delta Beta Chapter on campus.
“I received an invitation under my door to learn more about the sorority,” Jodi says. “It just never entered my consciousness. But I thought, ‘Let’s go!’ and went with other women from the hall. We had a big fear it was all about perfectly coiffed hair, giggling a lot and drinking punch at teas.
“Instead, it was about philanthropy, and the National Kidney Foundation, and women who were involved in activities like lacrosse or the newspaper…. Bright women doing cool things, who knew everyone on campus and even things like the best internships,” she adds. “I had to be a part of that.”
She joined and ultimately became what, at the time, was called “Rush Chairman” (known today as Membership Recruitment Chairman). “I loved it,” she recalls. “It involved all the things I do today – teaching people about host behavior, using conversational skills, making guests feel relaxed. … I took the role very seriously and trained our women on various skills that I still use today – and I hope they do, too.” (She admits she consulted her sorority materials when she first held etiquette classes working in HR for the IRS a few years later: “I literally pulled out the blue and gold flipcharts I had created for my Phi Sig sisters,” she says with a laugh.)
Thanks to Phi Sig, Jodi began to bloom in all the ways she’d hoped. She took various jobs in HR and employee-relations after graduating, ultimately working for Warner-Lambert (maker of Certs) and Fidelity Investments – and earning her master’s in industrial labor relations at the Ivy League’s Cornell University (which she was able to do, in part, by earning a Phi Sigma Sigma Foundation educational grant). Finally, she made the big decision to strike out on her own, training and speaking on the etiquette and workplace issues she’d studied extensively and found so fascinating.
Modern etiquette expert
The first few years at Mannersmith were anything but a piece of cake (no matter what fork you cut it with). “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “Looking back,” she adds, conveying the combined wisdom of all entrepreneurs, “maybe it was better not to know.”
She put in her time – hours of hard work and dedication. She preserved and promoted her personal and professional brand, becoming known among friends, family, colleagues and new clients for an uncannily dead-on understanding of, yet truly friendly approach to, the “new” etiquette for these modern times. She began earning media attention for her ability to speak on a range of topics with authority – everything from weddings and dating to workplace issues and children’s manners.
Now, she’s becoming the “it girl” of etiquette. Indeed, we couldn’t possibly list all the publications and places she’s quoted here. A casual search of her name online (that’s “Jodi R. R. Smith” – because “there are thousands upon thousands of ‘Jodi Smiths’ out there,” she explains) turns up more than 18,000 references in the blink of an eye. In addition to the traditional media, she’s drawn the interest of emerging online media moguls, too – becoming a regular contributor on The Huffington Post (which notes, tongue-in-cheek, that she’s “not your grandmother’s etiquette consultant”).
“Rock and roll,” Jodi says of how things are really starting to take off, a smile obvious in her voice. That's how Jodi is, you suddenly realize when speaking with her: So down to earth, you feel at ease and like her instantly - exactly as she intends. She's spent more than 15 years perfecting that technique.
It's what people are clamoring to pay for.
Sister for life
Meanwhile, Jodi’s continuing to manage a demanding seminar schedule for clients like Boston University, MIT, Harvard, Accenture, Fidelity and more – and preparing her new book, a complete guide on etiquette due out in 2011 through Barnes & Noble (where her other two books – slim, quick-read volumes – can also be found: “From Clueless to Class Act” for both women and men). It’s clear she’s excited about the book – as well as the direction her company is taking, especially since she drew her Delta Beta chapter sister Marianne Cohen into the business a few years ago.
Marianne has been leading a series of special seminars for Mannersmith called “Manners for Minors” that are quickly earning attention in their own right, Jodi says. Today’s savvy parents understand that their children’s long-term success and happiness are directly related to their ability to interact well with the world around them. Interest in the programs is growing. “Parents want what’s best for their children,” Jodi adds. “Teaching them about manners can help ensure they’re most prepared to achieve their dreams.”
For Phi Sig sisters, of course, the underlying story here is how long Jodi and Marianne have been close friends (more than two decades) – and how a true sisterhood like ours can and does impact women throughout their lives in ways they can’t possibly imagine in college.
As Delta Beta sisters, Jodi and “Stu” (Marianne’s chapter nickname) created and shared wonderful memories they cherish to this day. That friendship deepened when, together, they attended the 75th Conclave in Philadelphia, and later became active volunteers in the Fraternity. From then through now, they’ve remained very close – and today, working together, it’s clear that the bonds of trust and love that define our sisterhood have helped both women achieve even greater success and personal satisfaction.
“Sorority truly is for a lifetime,” Jodi says. “It’s surprising, what it gives you - in ways you could never have known at the time you joined.”
One thing’s certain: No matter what life throws Jodi’s way, she’s sure to know how to handle it with impeccable style and grace. Just like a Phi Sigma Sigma should.
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