For some, just hearing the word ‘etiquette’ is enough to send cold shivers down their spine.
It brings up memories of motherly commands — such as, ‘Keep your elbows off the table!’ or, ‘For God’s sake, chew with your mouth closed!’ — or conjures up pictures of fancy dinners with white-gloved waiters and six different forks to choose from.
But there’s a place for etiquette beyond Sunday supper or a state dinner with the Queen.
“Etiquette is not about being stuffy and uptight and prissy,” said Jodie Beach, owner of the Etiquette Advantage. “Etiquette is about making people comfortable and glad to be with you.”
And increasingly, it’s something farmers need to know about — especially those who find themselves at networking dinners with government officials and trade partners, or even events where producers have a chance to connect with the general public.
“There’s only two per cent of us out there, folks — we’ve got to make it count when we’re out representing our ag industry,” said Beach, who gave a lesson in business etiquette at an Alberta Canola Young Leaders training session last month.
“It’s a very small community, and word travels quickly — good or bad.”
And while the rules of etiquette can seem impenetrable for those of us more comfortable at White Castle than at the White House, it’s all about practice, said Beach.
“Nobody is born with an etiquette gene,” she said.
Do you rise? Which glass?
If your parents were sticklers about manners, you’re off to a good start, she said. But there are some key differences between social and business etiquette.
“If things seem different from what your grandma taught you, it’s probably because she was talking about social etiquette and I’m talking about business etiquette,” said Beach.
In a social situation, it’s considered polite for a man to rise when a woman joins or leaves the table, for instance. Not so in business etiquette.
“In business, we’re not supposed to see gender and we’re not supposed to see age,” said Beach, adding that also applies to things like shaking hands or opening doors. “If you wouldn’t stand up for a man coming to the table, you don’t stand up for a woman.”
Once you’ve shaken hands with your dinner companions (a firm, steady handshake is ideal), the first thing you’ll want to do is put your napkin in your lap.
“You’re not signalling for help, so don’t snap it around out there. Just unfold it and put it in your lap,” said Beach.
And don’t just leave it there to gather crumbs.
“The secret to having a napkin is to use it. If you have food on your face, wipe your mouth. If you’ve ever sat across somebody with food on their face, it’s very distracting. You don’t want that to be you.”
The same goes for wiping your hands.
“Nothing is finger-licking good. Do not lick your fingers. That’s what your napkin is for.”
And what about those extra utensils or dishes? Which bread plate belongs to you and which water glass belongs to your neighbour?
Your drink glass will always be on your right side, and your bread plate always on the left. If you forget that, bring your thumbs and forefingers together on each hand (discreetly, of course). The fingers on your left hand will form the lower-case letter ‘b’ (for bread) while the fingers on your right hand will form the lower-case letter ‘d’ (for drink.)
(There’s a similar trick for your utensils. ‘Fork’ and ‘left’ both have four letters, so your fork will always be on your left side while ‘knife,’ ‘spoon,’ and ‘right’ all have five letters, so they’re on your right side.)
And if your neighbour happens to steal your fork or bread plate, don’t just keep the trend going by grabbing your neighbour’s.
“If your neighbour takes your glass of water and drinks out of it, just tell the waitperson you didn’t get a glass of water,” said Beach.
No messing around
When it comes time to order your meal, pick “boring, bland, easy-to-eat food,” she added.
“Don’t order spaghetti or barbecue ribs. Don’t order anything you have to wrestle with.”
And if your dining companion is paying, order something in the mid-range of the price spectrum.
“You don’t have to order the cheapest thing, but don’t order the most expensive thing.”
At other dinners, the menu may be pre-selected and the meals simply brought one course at a time to your table. In that scenario, try to remember the dinner is not about the food and swallow whatever is put in front of you with a smile.
“If things are not perfect, let it go,” said Beach, adding you don’t have to clean your plate or even eat items you don’t like.
“If your meal comes out and it’s not cooked exactly the way you like it, it doesn’t matter, because it’s not about the food. It’s about the relationships that you’re building at the table.
“If you can remember that, your meal will go more smoothly.”
Wait until your whole table has been served their meals before starting to eat. And if you don’t know what fork to use, start from the outside and work your way in.
But don’t let it — or any utensil you’ve used — touch the table again. (Use the edge of your plate, bread plate, or soup saucer.)
And savour your meal — meaning, don’t just shovel food into your mouth.
“If you’re having lunch at the local coffee shop between fields, do what you want,” said Beach. “I don’t care. But if you’re at a business event, you’ll want to slow down a bit.”
It’s a lot of little details, but learning and practising good etiquette will make you feel more comfortable and self-assured when you find yourself at a dinner table with someone you want to impress.
In most situations, a little bit of common sense will go a long way, Beach added.
“Every rule I give you, there’s going to be an exception, so you’re just going to use your brain.”
But regardless of whether you’re in a social or business situation, it turns out your mother was right about one thing.
“Elbows don’t belong on the table.”