Minding our manners

Colleges are offering Etiquette 101 for a behaviorally challenged generation

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Here are some of the questions from a quiz given to University of Pittsburgh students last week:

• If you don't like what has been served at dinner, you should (a) discreetly ask the wait staff about possible substitutions; (b) push the food around on your plate and say you aren't hungry; or (c) see who else doesn't like the food and arrange for a post-dinner outing.

• To assist the wait staff, you should (a) do as little as possible; (b) lift your water glass toward them for easier pouring; (c) scrape and stack everyone's plate near you.

• If a fellow diner has a piece of broccoli in his teeth, you should (a) discreetly offer a toothpick; (b) motion lightly pointing to the corresponding part of your face; or (c) tell him only if you like him.

We'll provide the answers later, though you can safely assume there won't be a post-dinner outing at my favorite pizzeria.

The point here is that colleges -- not just Pitt, but scores of them -- are finally teaching the kinds of social skills that people think students ought to know before they leave school. Such as which fork is for the salad. And what you do with the dessert fork sitting atop the place setting. Also the tricky challenge of how to eat a cake covered in sauce. And the awkward issue of whether to order dessert at a business lunch.

It turns out that there is an economic principle that rules etiquette. When it is in short supply -- when people don't know, for example, that you shouldn't double dip your bread in a communal olive-oil plate -- there is a greater demand for it.

"It's an age when people don't want to be rude but are rude from ignorance," says Jodi R.R. Smith, who runs etiquette-training sessions out of Marblehead, Mass. "They just do not know. They are not given this information at church or synagogue or school, and there isn't an old lady down the street to report kids' bad behavior to their parents."

As a result, Ms. Smith and career counselor Karen A. Litzinger, who taught the course at the William Pitt Student Union, have their plate full because they know that cherry tomatoes should be speared at the stem (to prevent them from flying across the table) and that olives with pits should be treated as finger food. You never know when that kind of knowledge is going to come in handy.

This is not a column about bad manners, a rant about the decline of civilization because people wear flip-flops to work or the White House, a jeremiad about how the world is coming to an end because business casual has migrated from Friday to the entire week, or even a warning that America is at risk because our diplomats don't know not to use their left hand when eating in India and our executives don't realize that Europeans don't do business over breakfast.

It's merely a reminder that etiquette, done right, is supposed to make people feel at ease, not ill at ease, and that etiquette certainties are intended to take the uncertainty out of high-stress events, especially social events. It's also a reminder that the name badge should go high on the right shoulder. Ms. Litzinger tells us it's easier to see there.

I first encountered college etiquette instruction several years ago at Louisiana State University, where the journalism school offered a dinner-time course on the subject. Now such lessons are offered at Harvard, MIT, the University of Rochester, the University of Texas and many other institutions of higher learning.

There's a need for this.

"Say you go out to dinner," Ms. Smith, whose etiquette-consulting business is called Mannersmith, says over afternoon tea at a local Starbucks. "People who are used to eating their meals out of a plastic container with plastic knives no longer know how to eat at a table."

At this very moment in our conversation I spilled a drop of my chocolate-banana smoothie on my shirt. Which led to a discussion about spilling red wine on a white shirt. What's a person to do?

"Do a quick assessment of the situation while doing yoga breathing," Ms. Smith advises. "If it's just a couple of specks, dab it with your napkin and move on. I call this 'acknowledge and deflect.' But if it's a flood, you take your napkin from your lap and hold it against you so you're not conducting a wet T-shirt contest. You excuse yourself -- you don't need to say why -- and go to the facilities."

You think that's tough. How about the biggest unknown in social circumstances: Do men stand when a woman comes in the room?

The answer is easy. Yes.

But not because this is a remnant of sexism from long ago. It's because the best policy is to stand whenever anyone, male or female, arrives at a table or in an office. When in doubt, do the nice thing.

Which is a pretty good guide in life as well as at a dinner party or reception.

"My definition of manners," says Ms. Smith, "is having confidence in yourself and having the ability to make all those around you feel comfortable."

Ms. Litzinger adds: "Good manners means that you can be comfortable and confident enough that you can focus on the business at hand."

There. Now you can't say that you never found a useful quote in a newspaper column.

As for the answers to the quiz that Ms. Litzinger gave the Pitt students:

• Push the food around (b).

• Do as little as possible to assist the wait staff (a).

• For the broccoli-afflicted, Ms. Litzinger suggests a light motion toward the face (b). But as a broccoli hater of some conviction, I have a better idea. You can avoid the crisis of the errant broccoli speck simply by avoiding the vegetable entirely. Just push it around on your plate and say you aren't hungry. Works for me.

David M. Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette ( dshribman@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1890).


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