No Miss Manners

Talk of the Walk - Spring 2012

I’m not exactly known for my grace. I once kicked a puppy. Swear. But I wasn’t mad—just oblivious. (She was fine, by the way.) I also spent an evening a few years back trying to convince my husband that we should buy a Vespa scooter for me to use as my primary work vehicle to save on gas and reduce our carbon footprint. He reminded me that I have trouble walking the dog without somehow falling and injuring myself, and he was not about to put his wife and the mother of two kids on two wheels with a motor. In traffic.

I tend to be pretty blunt in conversation, and though I haven’t yet, there’s a good chance I could bring up an uncle’s gall bladder surgery, if prompted. At the dinner table, I have the basics down. I put a napkin in my lap. I keep my elbows off the table. I chew with my mouth closed. But I grew up with three older brothers, so I tend to eat a lot, and quickly. In my house, you had to grab the food and get it down fast before it was gone.

So, when I heard that President Dale Knobel and Mrs. Tina Knobel, in conjunction with the Career Exploration and Development Center and Campus Leadership and Involvement, were hosting the annual etiquette dinner for seniors, “The Art of the Business Meal,” I signed up.

The idea behind the dinner is to make sure seniors are prepared for business lunches, dinners, and interviews before graduation. Throughout a five-course meal, they learn the proper eating techniques using both American and Continental dining styles, the duties of the host and the guests, the art of the toast and the tip, and how best to handle accidents. I may be older than the majority of folks in that room, I told myself, but who couldn’t use a little etiquette lesson now and again? Especially someone who occasionally cleans her plate with her finger.

On the night of the event, Cathi Fallon, owner of The Etiquette Institute in Columbus and our teacher for the evening, told us just how much may be riding on every spoonful of soup. “Never forget,” she said, “how people see you handling your fork or knife is how they see you handling their company.” But there’s a lot more to it these days than knowing which fork to use when.

Increasingly, graduates are meeting and greeting potential employers over a meal—and in a global society, sometimes that meal is in another country. Not only did Fallon arm students with the practical advice they need in the business world (and likely have heard from Mom and Dad and Grandma growing up), but she also made a point to teach students and, ahem, faculty and staff, multicultural dining manners. Leaving your napkin on the seat of your chair in some cultures, for example, would not go well. Such a move tells servers that you are not at all satisfied with the service and will not be returning. (Imagine coming back from the restroom to find that the best meal you’ve ever eaten has been taken away.) In case you do need to step away from the table, Fallon suggests folding your napkin and hanging it on the back of your chair.

I’m proud to say I remembered this little tidbit when I had to excuse myself for a few minutes. I also remembered to work from the outside in while handling my utensils and to keep table conversation relatively neutral. (Apparently, no one wants to hear about gall bladder surgery over dessert. Or ever, really.) The students at my table and I were all a little bummed to hear Fallon advise us not to finish any course—and never to take the last slice of bread. Still, I weathered the whole lesson without too many embarrassing mistakes. But I did have one moment of panic during the salad course when I dropped a tomato on the table. Thank goodness, Fallon was nearby. “What do I do?” I asked her, only half joking.

“Pick it up,” she told me.

Oh. Well then. This etiquette thing isn’t all that hard.

Published April 2012