You’re at a business dinner with your boss and a client. As your client holds forth on the ways his last vendor let him down, you listen politely and chew on your steak. Then you bite down on a forkful only to find not delicious meat, but a greasy wad of fat and gristle. What do you do?
That’s a situation that many people would find uncomfortable, but etiquette expert Mary Harris doesn’t think it has to be that way. Rules of etiquette exist to cover just this kind of dilemma. Studying these rules can pay off big time in avoided embarrassment or awkwardness. Do you spit it out? Wipe your mouth and hide it in your napkin? Raise your fork again and smuggle it out on the fork when you return it to your plate?
All of those things are rude. “You have to swallow it and just deal with it,” Harris says. As a last resort in case of a bone or something truly inedible, using the fork technique as subtly as possible is the key, and then hide the unsightly rejected food in the parsley.
The rule is from Emily Post, the author of the American etiquette bibles of the mid-20th century, and it exists for a reason: to spare your fellow diners the spectacle of spitting food all over the place. If everyone uses good etiquette, everyone is happier, Harris says.
“It’s so that you can be more comfortable in any social or business setting so you’re putting your best self forward,” Harris said. “If you go into a situation wondering if you’re saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, and you’re not sure what’s appropriate, knowing etiquette can help you have a comfort level so you can not be distracted.”
Harris, who runs her own consulting and wedding planning company, is teaching one of the many business-related courses being offered at the Princeton Adult School’s spring semester, which begins on Tuesday, February 9. Classes at the Adult School are open to anyone and are held at Princeton High School and several other buildings around town. The etiquette class, a one-time session on Thursday, March 3, costs $30. Other classes include Starting Your Own Business from A to Z with business developer Rocky Romeo, Shark Tank, with patent attorney Eric LaMorte, and Communicating for Successful Results, with business coach Paul Hatrak. For more information, visit www.princetonadultschool.org or call 609-683-1101.
Harris grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, where her father worked for United Airlines and her mother was an educational psychologist. It was her mother’s large collection of etiquette books, and her adherence to them, that captured her imagination as a child and led Harris down her current career path. “She followed the rules in them pretty strictly. She was a great cook and a wonderful hostess. She had a PhD in psychology but she still somehow managed to keep the house very mannered and orderly and beautiful growing up,” Harris said.
Skipping college, Harris began a catering business that branched out into event planning in 1996. She got so many manners questions from clients that 10 years later, she attended the Protocol School of Washington for etiquette training and became an etiquette consultant. “There was an obvious need in the marketplace for a modern etiquette expert that was more than a manners maven,” Harris said.
At the classes and workshops Harris attends, many of the same questions tend to come up over and over again. The proper use of table settings seems to be the most perplexing. What are you supposed to do when confronted with a place setting with four different forks? Which do you use for which course? “A lot of people are just intimidated by all the silverware,” Harris says. “If you ever go to a Chamber luncheon where there are round tables, everybody gets thrown off by whose bread plate and whose wine glass is whose.”
Harris recommends reading good old Emily Post to get the answers to those basic questions. Other times, students throw her curveballs, such as when someone recently asked her what to do with empty sweetener packets. “There’s nowhere really to put it,” Harris says. “You could kind of put it on the edge of your bread plate depending on where you were eating. I don’t want to clutter up the table, so I would tuck it under the dinner plate if I could.”
That question doesn’t have a by-the-book answer, but it does reveal the thinking that is common to all etiquette rules: they are designed to make it so other people don’t have to see or deal with your refuse. It’s all about putting others at ease.
Harris said she sees people make the biggest etiquette errors when they ignore these principles. Being late and lying are the two biggest breaches of etiquette that she sees frequently, and she has seen people fired because of them.
“Where I see people not get a job or get fired, it’s because of social skills most of the time,” Harris said. “Only 11 percent of people who are fired are because they can’t do their jobs. The rest are because they don’t understand basic social skills and soft skills, which is what I teach.”
Being chronically late is an indicator of disrespect for other people’s time. She once saw a vendor lose a contract because they were 45 minutes late to a meeting with the client, and they compounded the error by continually texting the client to say they were almost there. The client didn’t accept the meeting when they finally arrived. “They were completely baffled that he wasn’t going to accept the meeting,” Harris recalled.
Although traffic jams happen, Harris says it’s best to plan to be early so that in the event of a delay, you are still on time.
Lies are often used to excuse lateness, and those are also inexcusable breaches of good manners. Harris says she once had an employee who told her on two separate occasions that he got hit by a bus. “The best practice is not to lie,” Harris said. Even a “white lie” is unacceptable. Rather than give an insincere compliment, for example, Harris said it’s better to find something truthful to compliment the person about.
Another fatal error of business dining is to be rude or demanding to waitstaff in an effort to demonstrate that you are in control or assertive. In reality, snapping fingers at waiters only shows your lack of good manners. “It shows the exact opposite, and it’s really bad practice to treat restaurant staff like that,” Harris said.
Although Emily Post is a good resource for this kind of thing, the classic books are behind the times when it comes to gender equality. Many etiquette books advise treating women different from men, for example, by pulling a chair out for a woman. However, a chivalrous gesture like that to a female CEO would likely be taken as insulting rather than polite.
Another big etiquette no-no: calling people out who breach rules of etiquette. “It’s not about being bossy, or about knowing all the rules to chastise people or scold people, but making people comfortable,” Harris said.