Recently, I was invited to attend as a special guest at a lunch that focused on the etiquette of dining. No, this wasn't for businesspeople; it was for seventh-graders at an independent school in Crownsville, Md.
The faculty at Indian Creek School has been putting on this etiquette luncheon for many years with the goal of teaching kids how to behave and handle themselves in a more formal social event. While enjoying my lunch with the students, it struck me how crucial these social skills really are in today's workplace. Watching over 10 tables of teens navigating their way through a five-course meal while figuring out which utensils to use, how to pass food around the table and what to talk about at the meal was enlightening to say the least.
The children were well prepared, yet they were curious as to why these social skills are so important today. Many college students and business professionals ask the same questions. Some challenge us by saying that etiquette training and manners are outdated and not useful in today's changing society.
I told the young people at my table that some applicants have lost jobs based on how poorly, rudely or inappropriately they behaved at meals. From the recruiter's perspective, if a person can't behave properly in this social situation, then they probably will behave just as poorly with clients or customers, and this could impact the company's service and business. Companies want to ensure that the person they are hiring is projecting the right "image" to others. Because so much more business is conducted over the dining table today, it is important that individuals display professional behaviors.
Many of us, however, have not learned proper dining etiquette for a variety of reasons. And, things seem to have gotten worse with the introduction of fast food, pre-packaged meals, dual careers and crazy, rushed lifestyles.
What is proper etiquette at a meal?
There is plenty of advice out there on what to do and how to do it when it comes to meal etiquette. The primary issues focus on the U.S. customs listed below. See how many of these you can follow at a family meal.
• Arrive to the event at least 10 minutes early (and never late).
• Take your hostess a small gift
• Wait to be seated until the host sits down or all the women are seated.
• Place your napkin on your lap within a minute of being seated.
• Wait until everyone is served before starting to eat your meal.
• Always say please and thank you when being served.
• Navigating the table. A simple way to remember what drink glass or bread plate is yours is using the acronym BMW -- bread, meal, water. This means you start from the left and make your way to the right. Your bread plate is first, then your meal plate, and then your water. So, your bread plate is on your left, while your water glass is on your right.
• Keep it simple when ordering at a restaurant. Don't order the most expensive thing on the menu. Business lunches are not the best place to try something exotic or messy.
• Pass food from the left to right; pass the salt and pepper together and place them directly on the table, not to someone's hands (and by the way, it is considered rude if you season food before tasting it).
• Use serving utensils to serve yourself, not your own utensils; and once used, rest your utensils on the side of your plate or bowl (not on the table).
• Only cut enough food for the next mouthful.
• Don't talk with food in your mouth.
• Don't play with your utensils or wave/point them at others.
• Pace your eating with those you are with so that you don't finish way before them or way after them.
• Keep your left hand in your lap, unless you are using it, and keep your elbows off the table.
• Make small talk or conversation with everyone at the table.
• No slurping, burping and other loud noises. Don't apply makeup or brush your hair at the table. Don't blow your nose at the table or be rude to the wait staff.
• Do not bring your cell phone or other technology to the table, and make sure they are turned to silent if they are nearby (definitely challenging in today's world).
• Before you leave the table, say "excuse me." If a woman leaves the table, all the men should stand up, and likewise they should stand up when she returns to the table.
• Send a thank you note after the event.
The list above offers just a handful of the existing etiquette rules for dining. There are plenty of others, especially as they relate to how to eat certain foods (e.g., chicken, pasta, soup). And, we haven't even talked about drinks at the dinner table. Because fewer individuals are being taught etiquette at home, if you feel you may be deficient in this area, spend the time to learn what to do.
• Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.