Good manners are always in style, so for one day each year MIT sponsors Charm School.

It’s an afternoon of classes on table manners, small talk, how to dress, and how to ask for a date. Other subjects include: schmoozing, overcoming shyness, telephone etiquette, and how to butter up big shots.

The focus of the MIT Charm School is to learn social grace and also to have fun.

“It’s lots of fun to remind people in American society what style and charm is all about — what it’s like to have flair,” says literature professor Travis Merritt, who began Charm School at MIT in 1993.

He got the idea because he was tired of hearing fellow faculty members grouse about students. “Look,” they would say as four students sat eating lunch together not talking. “Just no style. No outreach.” Finally Merritt suggested, “Let’s start a Charm School,” and his colleagues resounded, “Yes!”

He modeled the classes after the Charm School his mother attended in high school in Scranton, Pa. Now MIT has received calls and letters from schools across the country who want information on how to begin their own Charm Schools.

Power walking

Merritt spent part of the afternoon teaching “Power Walking,” which is ambling with a confident, purposeful stride. “If you do it right, the soul will imitate the body,” he says. “If you learn the stance, then the intellect and spirit will come along to accompany it.”

Reid Andersen, a 19-year-old sophomore from San Mateo, California, said you really do feel powerful and confident when you power walk. “I’ll still walk with my usual flair. (I snap my fingers when I walk.) But I’ll be more aware. I’d really love to master a stylish saunter.”

Eight hundred students participated in the afternoon activities. The fashion police patrolled the corridors and wrote citations for style violations. One young man who was wearing a hat indoors was obliged to stand at the microphone and apologize for the social gaffe.

The session “Learn to Flirt” drew the largest crowd of MIT students by far. Young people at the session crowded around the instructor, who explained that one secret of the sexes is that men would like women to be more aggressive and women would like men to be less aggressive.

Grad student Jeff Freedman said he enjoyed the flirting session, but the prerequisite should be the Charm School class on small talk. “You really need to take that first,” he says. “It doesn’t do any good to flirt if you can’t talk to each other.”

One young woman wanted to know how to get an MIT man to flirt in the first place. “How do I get his attention when he’s always staring at his computer screen?” she asked.

A tricky question, the group agreed, adding that the only sure way to get his attention would be to pull the plug.