“Do you always eat this way?”
I recently gave a dining etiquette presentation to DECA leadership participants. DECA hires me every year to speak to these bright young people because they know it’s important the students have good dining etiquette and table manners for success in their careers and social interactions.
For those of you who are not familiar with DECA, it is an international program that prepares high school and college students for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.
In the training, I teach how to navigate a formal place setting with many utensils, a bread plate, butter knife, dessert spoon and fork. I also talk about napkin dos and don’ts, how to eat bread, how to hold utensils correctly, table manners, waiter codes, how to host a business meal and more. I always explain that they may not go to fancy restaurants or clubs or eat a three-course meal on a regular basis, but it’s important to learn how to conduct themselves so that if faced with a more formal meal they know what to do.
My classes are very interactive and engaging. I tell stories, each table is given topics or dilemmas to discuss, such as what to do if you find a bug in your food. My participants love the class. For many it is the first time they have experienced a more formal meal, so it’s a special treat.
Towards the end of this training during questions and answers, one young man asked if I “always eat this way?” I had to laugh. He thought I was pretty formal; and I suppose if you’ve not eaten in an upscale restaurant or been taught dining etiquette it would seem foreign and maybe even silly. I answered that while I rarely set a formal table and eat a three-course meal at home I do practice many of the points I shared. I always put my napkin on my lap even when I’m in a fast food restaurant. I eat my bread the way I taught them by tearing off one small bite at a time and buttering just that piece and never using a knife to cut it in half. I also hold my utensils the way I demonstrate because it gives me more leverage when cutting meat and keeps me from looking like a cave man. I practice good table manners – I don’t reach for things or scarf my food down. I chew with my mouth closed, I don’t ask to eat other people’s food and I never berate the waiter at a restaurant (very impolite and rude).
But I also teach that it’s acceptable to break etiquette, particularly if by practicing proper etiquette it would make others feel uncomfortable or make you stand out in a negative way. A story I like to share is about the time the late Queen Elizabeth hosted a dinner party. There were shallow bowls of warm water and a lemon slice at each person’s place. One of her guests picked up the bowl and drank the water, not knowing it was meant to be used as a finger bowl to wash your fingers before the meal. To avoid embarrassing her guest, the Queen picked up her bowl and drank the water as well. Had she used it as a finger bowl he would have realized his error and been embarrassed by his etiquette faux pas.
A point I like to make is there is a “perfectly proper” way to do things, such as scooping away from you when eating soup, and then I share the things that don’t have to be perfectly proper. Truth be told, I don’t scoop away from me when eating soup. I also dip my bread in my soup occasionally despite being told in etiquette school that one should drop a small piece of bread into the soup and scoop it out with the spoon.
Learning etiquette has been helpful to me because when I know what to do, I can relax and connect with the people I’m interacting with rather than worrying about which fork to use or how to carry on a conversation. Knowledge is power. Once you learn something you get to decide if you want to use that knowledge. I will say, though, that many people have shared with me the negative impression someone with bad manners made on them and the consequences – students didn’t get references, employees were fired, candidates weren’t hired, or dates have ended after one date, all because someone had bad manners.
In the end, I wouldn’t be a very good etiquette consultant if I didn’t practice what I preach. Am I perfect? Oh no, far from it. I make many mistakes and occasional faux pas – some people are a bit shocked to discover I can have a potty mouth, especially when I miss a shot in pickleball. But I try to practice etiquette because it’s useful and it helps me to present myself well and treat others kindly. And, while I don’t expect the young DECA participants to “always eat like this,” I do hope they walk away with a few tips that will help them to be more successful when hosting or participating in a business meal or impressing a date.
Please note: We have a new method of delivering blog posts to your inbox. If you have previously received these blog posts through Feedburner, please subscribe to receive these blog posts through the form below and unsubscribe to the posts you receive through Feedburner.