Charm School for Spouses: Swarthy Scoundrels Coach Couples in Corporate Manners

It’s hard enough getting ahead in this town. But when you have a husband or wife who commits petty embarrassments and career-bending gaffes, you can forget it. All that painstaking ass-kissing and hard work will get you nowhere if your husband can’t stop ashing on the rug or your wife can’t learn to say, ” Good for you!”

At corporate breakfasts, cocktail receptions, ski outings, squash brunches, museum parties, client weddings, company clambakes and the like, embarrassment can cost you a promotion, i.e., money. Think about it: A faux pas could deprive your children of a college education.

Enter Charles & Associates, a two-man image consulting firm run by Charles Sacarello, 45, of Gibraltar, then Spain, and David Steinberg, 42, of Westchester, N.Y. They recently set up shop in Manhattan to instruct an ill-mannered generation of husbands and wives (and single men looking to get laid) in the finer points of Old World corporate etiquette.

After only a few months on the job, Mr. Sacarello and Mr. Steinberg are aghast at the decay of manners in the city.

“You can’t imagine the number of people at a very high level who have no idea how to behave, and it’s even worse with the spouses,” Mr. Sacarello said, raising his immaculately brushed eyebrows to Mr. Steinberg in the midtown offices of their lawyer. “They’ll be sitting at a table and you’ll realize that they can’t handle cutlery, they can’t taste wine and they don’t have the social graces to be relaxed. While their spouse is doing business on one side of the room, they’re drinking too much and saying things they shouldn’t be saying to the wife of the C.E.O. and ultimately damaging their spouse’s business relationships.”

“The executive and the spouse are part of the same unit,” Mr. Steinberg said. “They represent each other. We get a lot of calls from business executives who want their husbands or wives to be more presentable to their bosses.”

Mr. Sacarello and Mr. Steinberg met in Marbella, Spain, 12 years ago. At the time, Mr. Sacarello was a leisure-industry consultant who also dabbled in personal consulting. Mr. Steinberg was a high-flying residential real estate salesman with a booming business but a loud wardrobe and boorish manners. After months of soul searching, Mr. Steinberg decided to seek help. It arrived in the dapper form of Mr. Sacarello, who though he never finished college, had educated himself in the finer points of etiquette.

“David was quite different from the way he is now,” Mr. Sacarello said with a wink to Mr. Steinberg.

“Yeah, I was loud in voice and communication as well as in dress,” Mr. Steinberg concurred in a softly composed voice, his hands folded neatly on the table. A red-patterned handkerchief peeked out of his jacket pocket. “I used to wear my labels on the outside, instead of on the inside.”

“Jewelry, too,” sighed Mr. Sacarello, “and loud colors.”

“Yeah, loud colors and red shoes,” Mr. Steinberg said.

Mr. Steinberg’s transformation from Westchester lout to international man of manners was so successful that the pair decided to go into business together.

Now, after 12 years of consulting Europeans, the duo decided the United States was ready for a lesson in corporate etiquette. They run the business out of the midtown office of a real estate management company they own.

For a mere $500, during an initial 90-minute consultation over dinner or drinks, Mr. Sacarello and Mr. Steinberg can provide answers to the following kinds of questions.

Should a man stand as a woman leaves from or returns to the table? (Yes, but if other men at the table do not, it is acceptable simply to bow or nod your head.)

Should you shake hands with a religious leader? (Not with a rabbi’s wife, unless she extends her hand first. Otherwise, let the religious guy make the first move.)

Is it acceptable to apply cosmetics at the table? (Lipstick only. No compacts or mirrors, please.)

Mr. Sacarello has found that he is most often called upon to help hostesses throw parties. In such cases, he suggests returning to the basics. Make sure the bathroom has fresh towels, attend to the wallflowers, make sure everyone has a drink, and don’t serve anything that is difficult to eat (no pasta).

Then there’s the corporate husband, that poorly dressed bundle of bitterness and insecurity. Such men are Mr. Sacarello and Mr. Steinberg’s bread and butter, and their greatest challenge. The first thing Mr. Sacarello and Mr. Steinberg usually suggest is: Get thee to a gymnasium. “Most husbands of women executives don’t look as sharp as their spouses. We ask these individuals to take a look at themselves in the mirror,” Mr. Sacarello said.

“It’s all in the details,” Mr. Steinberg added, “in their appearance, in their grooming, in their teeth and the quality of the clothes they get.”

They say No to gold chains, bracelets, loud ties, big rings and white shoes, and Yes to a silver lighter. “I’d advise a handkerchief,” Mr. Steinberg said with pathos. “Most gentlemen don’t carry hankies and then you’re sneezing and coughing.”

“I’ve seen situations where a couple can be out at a social gathering,” Mr. Sacarello said. “They know they’re on parade, and they try to feel they’re one of the gang, as opposed to knowing that they might be getting judged. The spouse will drink too much and talk familiarly about things they should not be talking about, and they may feel like they belong, but they’re making a horrible impression and they don’t even know it.”

“There’s a tendency to bitterness on the part of the man,” Mr. Sacarello went on. “There’s a tendency to drink a little too much, to dress in a way that makes a statement which essentially says, ‘I’m unhappy to be here.’ So we ask the spouse, ‘Where did it go wrong?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, her appearance changed, her demeanor changed, her personality changed. She became somebody and I was the hanger on.’ The college sweetheart is someone they no longer know. But if a woman can help him feel comfortable and let him know how to behave and let him be the equivalent of a Denis Thatcher to Margaret Thatcher or Prince Philip to the Queen, then there’s not a problem. They haven’t been emasculated; they are still the man of that woman’s life.”