Manners: Do You Mind?

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

Welcome to Campus Buzz! This is the newest place to read, see and hear what some of us at Amherst are up to. As Green Dean at the Office of Public Affairs, I’m pleased to bring you the inaugural bit of buzz.

My job on Sunday, Jan. 21, was to have dinner. Actually, it was to learn to partake of a meal the proper way by joining more than 60 students and alumni for Amherst’s first Gracious Dining seminar.

Gracious Dining? To be honest, I was ambivalent about my fitness for this particular assignment, and not just because it would be the first Campus Buzz article and my first real attempt at investigative journalism. Normally, I’d be all over the dining part—restaurant meals are among my favorite of life’s pleasures—but just that Friday I’d had four wisdom teeth wrenched from my jaw; my only hope was that the dinner’s four courses would include soup and a soft dessert.

And the gracious part? Well, as conscientiously as I try to say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me,” I’m sure I regularly break every other etiquette rule ever calligraphed onto a cream-colored note card. I find small talk with strangers excruciating, and physically I’m an incurable klutz. (I’ve considered buying one of those T-shirts that read AWKWARD, but it would be stating the obvious.) And like everyone who spends years at Amherst, I’ve grown accustomed to relaxed meals with friends at Valentine Dining Hall, where we wear our hats at the table, engage in loud and contentious intellectual discussions and turn the fortune-cookie messages into crude innuendo. A night of minding my manners was an intimidating prospect.

But duty called. I slurped my lunch in front of my computer (canned macaroni-and-bean soup straight out of the pot I’d cooked it in), changed out of my pajamas and headed to campus.

The Lewis-Sebring Dining Commons are in the same building as Valentine, but this evening they seemed worlds away, as the smartly dressed guests filed in. We were instructed to don nametags and mingle in the sitting area. I mingled, to the extent that it can be called “mingling” when one person is asking the other to speak into a tape recorder.

First, I spoke with Rosalind Hoffa, director of the Career Center and associate dean of students. (The Gracious Dining seminar was part of a three-day Career Center program called “Career Choices: Chance, Challenge, Change.”) Hoffa said that students regularly seek her advice on how to handle face-to-face interviews and lunches with potential employers. “Increasingly,” she said, “interviewing and connecting and networking are done in social situations. Quite honestly, an interview can live or die on how you interact professionally with someone.” Yikes!

I had always thought of formal rules as adding anxiety to what otherwise could be an easy, relaxed interaction. But maybe, I realized then, etiquette instruction is really about learning to manage a high-stakes situation with less anxiety, with more style and confidence.

I learned that a few students already had such confidence, thanks to etiquette-conscious upbringings. Eunice Ko ’09 said her mother used to take her out to fancy restaurants as practice. “She’d tell me, ‘Oh, this fork is for this. You should wait for people to pull out your chair.’”

John Barbieri ’09, however, told me he has always disliked formality. “I think it’s silly and unnecessary,” he said, “and who decides what ‘formal’ is? Like, what if ‘formal’ is wearing a T-shirt and jeans? Why can’t that be formal?” He had a point: the rules can seem nit-picky and arbitrary. But why, then, was he attending the seminar? “I figured that I can’t change the whole world and make it not formal,” he said. “I might as well join them, because I can’t beat them. It’ll probably be useful in most job settings.”

Jeff Simon ’08 summed up what seemed to be the attitude of most of the dinner guests: “For better or worse, people are judged on their manners, and mine would benefit from instruction.”

Jodi R.R. Smith, our etiquette instructor for the evening, uttered the same truth. Once we had taken seats at candlelit tables in the dining room, she told us, “People generalize competence based on behavior.” Well-mannered people are perceived as smarter, kinder and more skilled.

When Smith was a young adult working in human resources, she noticed bright, competent people being passed over for promotions because they lacked social skills. She drew on her degrees in motivational psychology and industrial and labor relations to teach her colleagues how to get along with others. In 1996 she founded her own etiquette consulting firm, Mannersmith, which runs Gracious Dining seminars and other workshops for corporations, non-profit groups, medical and legal practices, young children and, increasingly, college students.

As Smith walked around the room, she used jokes, anecdotes and mnemonic devices to guide us through our salad, soup, roll, entree and dessert. She invited questions, suggesting they be prefaced with the words, “A friend of mine was wondering…” When someone asked what “her friend” should do with bits of unwanted food, Smith declared, “We’re not allowed to use our bread and butter plate as a Siberia.” Instead of banishing the food, she advised, just push it very discreetly to the edge of the main plate.

Some rules were tricky and strangely specific. (I had no idea that the exact angles at which the knife and fork rest on the plate indicate to wait staff whether one is finished eating.) But Smith explained how, far from being arbitrary, most rules are based on broader underlying principles. Some reflect the aesthetic principle of “symmetry of dining,” meaning that everyone’s place settings should look the same, and that everyone should order the same number of courses so no one is ever the only one eating. Other rules honor cultural traditions and beliefs. In parts of Latin America, for example, the salt shaker is never passed directly from hand to hand, because salt was once believed to absorb and pass on ill humors. Smith emphasized the most important principle: to make sure everyone feels respected and has a pleasant experience. She knows that, inaccurately and unfortunately, the word etiquette often conjures up images of snobbery and finger-wagging. “When people use etiquette as a sword to stab one another, it breaks my heart,” she said.

Between reporting and greeting and making small talk and learning the rules, I must say, I’ve never found a meal so exhausting. But the experience was also wonderfully informative and not nearly as embarrassing as I’d feared. (Okay, so my American fork revolted against being held Continental-style and spent half the night on the floor. Only the kid next to me noticed.) The seminar closed with a brief lesson on writing thank-you notes, and mine, to Ms. Smith, was sincere.

Here’s what I figured out at dinner that night: The process of learning formal etiquette causes temporary stress and awkwardness. But once etiquette becomes second-nature—once formal is fun—it could save us (and those around us) a lot of stress and awkwardness in the long run. And who knows what opportunities it might open up?

For now, I’m relieved to be back to spending most evenings in my pajamas with my pot of soup. But maybe some nights I’ll practice sitting up straight, spooning the soup away from me and lifting it to my mouth, carefully, like Smith recommends.

Gracious Dining Tips from Jodi R.R. Smith, President and Founder of Mannersmith:

  • If you have any dietary restrictions, it is your responsibility to inform the host in advance or to check the restaurant’s menu ahead of time.
  • Show up at least 10 minutes early, but do not sit down and order or begin eating until everyone arrives.
  • “Be an anthropologist.” Etiquette always depends on the specific culture and situation, so observe and follow what the people around you are doing.
  • “First names are like vampires.” Just as a vampire can never enter a house without permission, you should not call people by their first names until they let you know that you may.
  • Order neither the most expensive nor the least expensive item on the menu, unless your host instructs you to.
  • In most cultures, business is not discussed right at the beginning of a meal. Be prepared to chat about current events, entertainment, hobbies and such.
  • Two forbidden conversation topics: “How much did you pay for that?” and “Oh, my aching [body part]!”
  • Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food. Don’t slouch!
  • “Just because you can fit something in your mouth doesn’t make it bite-sized.”
  • Your napkin is not to be used as a tissue, ever. If you have a real tissue, dabbing your nose at the table is fine; blowing your nose is yucky.
  • Generally, the person who has arranged the meeting pays for the meal.

Don’t buzz off yet. Buzz back! Did you attend the Gracious Dining seminar? Do you think it’s worth learning formal etiquette rules? Have you ever committed any horrendous faux pas? Leave a comment.