Mind Your Manners

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Well, don’t you have it all figured out? You pulled down a 3.3 in your business major; you have some job interviews lined up; and, hey, you’re halfway presentable in that new suit. This job thing should be a lay-up.

Not so fast. Ever seen yourself eat? Not pretty, my friend. Not at all. With a competitive job market, shoddy (or no) table manners will kill any deal. Gratefully, colleges are coming to the rescue, staging dining-etiquette boot camps to help you become the suave dinner guest and gracious raconteur (‘one who tells stories and anecdotes with skill and wit’ ‘ American Heritage Dictionary) you were meant to be.

You won’t be alone in your aspirations. Students are showing up in droves, aware that, having spent a life wolfing take-out in front of the TV ‘ certainly not eating with mom, dad and siblings over a home-cooked meal ‘ they are sights for sore eyes.

‘Companies are now hiring the entire package, not just someone with a high GPA,’ says Mark Westfield, the missionary for manners who, for 15 years, has toured colleges to conduct dining-etiquette programs, most recently at the State University of New York. ‘Students want that competitive edge, and they will be a better employee with these skills. I can work wonders with them.’

Many dining-etiquette events commence with a ‘mocktail’ hour at which alumni and business types mingle with students, who are given pointers on everything from the fine art of ingratiating small talk to juggling an hors d’oeuvres plate in one hand while shaking hands with the other. For dinner, students dine amid fine china, linen table clothes, waitstaff and candlelight. It’s all very romantic! Okay, perhaps not ‘ certainly not when there are pop quizzes and performance evaluations throughout the meal.

‘Students feel inadequate about interviewing for a job over dinner,’ says Patricia Cordner of Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, NY, host of Goofs, Goblets and Getting the Edge. ‘This is an up-and-coming thing. They want to know.’ Common inquiries include: What do you order to eat? How do you introduce your date? Is it okay to have a drink if offered? What about that olive pit?

‘Don’t be afraid to make a mistake; there is often no ‘right’ way to do something,’ says Nancy Paul, of SUNY Binghamton’s career development center. ‘It’s a matter of being comfortable. Practice makes perfect.’ First feat? No cell phone use at the party.

Do the Right Thing

Don’t
You enter the reception, spot the buffet table and make a beeline for it in order to hoard the shrimp before a crowd accumulates.

Do
Easy does it. How about striking up a conversation with somebody you don’t know? That’s why you are there, not to cower and chow down on seafood.

Don’t
For your appetizer, you order soup, which arrives very hot. You blow on it to cool it down.

Do
Gauche! Let it cool on its own. By the way, when you get down to business, don’t slurp it and, as you get to the dregs, tip the bowl away from you to spoon the rest.

Don’t
Bread is the staff of life, we agree. In your exuberance, you dip your own bread knife into the butter (instead of using the knife with the butter dish), slather it on your roll as if frosting a cake and chow down.

Do
Poor form. Using the butter knife furnished with the butter, not your own; place the butter on your bread dish (small one, 10 o’clock), not the bread (not yet, anyway). Take your own butter knife and butter broken-off portions as you eat them.

Don’t
You drop your salad fork (that’s the smaller one) and stretch over, chairing up on its hind legs, to a neighboring table to replace it from a setting.

Do
Gesture to the waiter, discreetly (no napkin-waving, please), who will replace your utensil gone MIA. Same remedy applies with other gravity-sensitive items.Your Cordon Bleu is placed before you. You reach for the salt and pepper and proceed to season your food.

Don’t
Getting up to excuse yourself from the table, you announce to the world that you are leaving, and why, draping your napkin over the back of your chair.

Do
No reason to announce that you are departing. Who really cares, anyway? Quietly excuse yourself and place your napkin, loosely folded, to the left of your plate.

Don’t
Somebody you are talking to has a piece of spinach caught in his teeth. You ignore the offending item and feign ongoing interest in the conversation. Maybe a little embarrassed, he’ll appreciate the heads-up.

Do
Discreetly inform the guest, with a hint of nonchalant levity, that he has something caught in his incisor.

Don’t
After dinner, some of the business recruiters invite willing souls to drinks down the street for an informal finale ‘ you know, a friendly nightcap.

Do
Politely decline the offer and leave how you came: a young professional. There is nothing wrong with saying ‘No, thank you.’ Your restraint might lead to a job offer.

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