Drinks on the Right, Bread on the Left

If I drop something on the table, can I pick it up? If a lady leaves the table, are we obligated to stand up? What if I have to sneeze?

These were just some of the questions asked during last week’s Graduate Women in Business etiquette dinner held at the Union. Clearly, there was a lot to learn when partaking in a formal business dining adventure.

I looked forward to this dinner, in part because I wanted to see whether my dining habits were on the right track, and in part because I thought it would be a fun way to spend a Friday night. And, it was. The room was filled with women–and men–who were looking to learn polished American dining customs that you might find at a fine finishing school. I imagined that this was the sort of activity any private (i.e. pricey) East coast ivy league school would require of all its students. We enjoyed a meal from finish to end with salad, rolls, entree, dessert and drinks, along with lots of good conversation.

A brief PowerPoint presentation led us through the do’s and don’ts of dining. Some example: keep your hands above the table, no grooming while dining, start with utensils furthest from your plate, and keep your “money maker” hand free for handshakes and networking. We also learned about the rule of 12s, which included no more than 12 accessories, checking your top 12 inches, bottom 12 inches, and the 12 inches from fingers to elbows.

I was happy to find that I knew almost all of the proper etiquette. Much of that is thanks to my mother. But some of it came courtesy of a few years of 4-H where I entered cooking projects that always required setting a table. You never forget getting points off for having your knife blade facing away from the plate! Harder still was learning to keep my composure while watching my beautifully prepared cherry cobbler slide off of my picnic basket and crash onto the floor near the judge’s table before I had a chance to present my place setting. There’s nothing quite like the sheer sudden silence of at least 100 nervously gabbing children and mothers in a stuffy fairgrounds building. When you are 11 this is about the worst thing ever. Thankfully, my mom was there to scrape up the cobbler, while I set the table. She placed it in the center of my country-inspired table top, and I proceeded to answer the judges questions. There was no time for tears (they would come later that afternoon). I remember the judge telling me that it looked tasty, even though she refused to try it. In the end, I won an Outstanding ribbon, and earned back a little dignity.

So, even if there is a gaffe at the business table I know I can take the lessons learned from mom, from 4-H, and from the etiquette dinner to pull myself back together and get the job done. Let’s just hope cherry cobbler won’t be involved.

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