Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dear Miss Manners

Twenty years ago, my grandfather sat me at a table, placed books under both my armpits and then had me eat dinner while squeezing the books between my arms so that they wouldn't fall. His ideas may have been slightly draconian, especially for a nine year old, but thanks to his instruction I've never eaten a meal with my elbows splayed out and sticking in my neighbor's plate. I've also (almost) always had a napkin properly sitting in my lap, known which fork/knife goes with each course, waited dutifully until everyone was served at the table before starting to eat, and eaten my meals using the more efficient European method, which involves cutting the food with the fork in my left hand and the knife in my right and then bringing the food to my mouth while still holding the fork in my left hand. (The American style, also known as the "zig zag method" involves cutting the food with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right, and then putting the knife down and switching the fork to your right hand in order to bring it to your mouth).

This past week, I had the opportunity to revisit my grandfather's etiquette lessons under the watchful eyes of the very prim and proper Ms. Michelle Pollard Patrick, III, alternatively known as Michelle Patrick Pollard, III, and her assistant, a younger version of herself. Without even a trace of humor, and with every bit an air of condescension, Ms. MPP ("Yeah you know me!")* instructed my summer associate colleagues and me on the nuances of eating at a formal dinner for three very long hours. These rules included the following:

-To greet your fellow diners, shake their hands with a not-too-firm and not-too-weak grip, make eye contact, pump your hands twice, and say your name, followed with something along the lines of "it's a pleasure to meet you";
-Approach your seat at the table on the right side and leave from the left;
-To drink water, or any other liquid for that matter, bring the cup to your lips and then tilt your head back about 10 degrees so that you don't slurp;
-When eating bread and butter, don't spread the butter on the bread all at once and then eat it. Instead, put the butter on your plate, break off a bite size piece of bread, spread it, and then, if you're still hungry, eat it;
-If asked to pass the salt, also pass the pepper;
-Never let your fork or knife touch the table once you have started using them. They should always remain in your hands or on the plate;
-When eating soup, scoop the soup onto your spoon away from you instead of towards you;
-Twirl only 2-3 strands of pasta on your fork at a time;
-Neither toothpicks nor business cards should make an appearance at the table;
-Never drink to a toast made for you;
-Always thank your host for the meal.

Ms. MPP made very clear that if I don't follow all these rules than I will fail miserably in my career as a lawyer, especially given the numerous clients I expect to have dinner with as a first year associate (zero). Except for bathroom and sleep breaks, I'm also still twirling my pasta, two to three strands at a time, even though lunch technically ended five days ago.

Besides not cracking a joke the entire time, what made lunch so painful was Ms. MPP's failure to distinguish between good manners and proper etiquette. Good manners, which is really what my grandfather taught me, means being respectful at the table; eating in a way that isn't too messy, noisy or intrusive on one's dining neighbors; and showing an appreciation for the meal even if the food isn't to one's liking. Those principles will undoubtedly help me to succeed as a professional, but they also make me a better person overall.

Proper etiquette, on the other hand, involves a list of arcane rules that many people aren't even aware of, and that only come in handy when dining with royalty or when attending a 17th century-themed costume ball, assuming dinner precedes the dancing. I'm impressed that Ms. MPP is able to make a career out of being an etiquette specialist, but I walked away from lunch having felt talked down to for three hours and not having enjoyed my meal very much, except for the chocolate brownie sundae at the end. I don't need a tutorial to know that eating habits vary with culture and setting, and that establishing good relationships, whether they be for business or pleasure, can happen even if I don't tilt my head ten degrees to take a drink. Imposing a set of rigid rules on eating out may even make it more difficult to build a rapport with the other people sitting at the table, especially if the rules are ones that they don’t follow. My grandfather got that point through my head twenty years ago, but Ms. MPP has yet to figure it out.

*That's an (ironic?) reference to the band Naughty by Nature

3 Comments:

At 6/19/2007 9:21 AM, Blogger Ariel Glasner said...

From a friend:
Hilarious – and excellent judgment on Ariel's part.

And BTW, where'd that dame get the idea that if someone asks for salt you're supposed to give him the pepper, too? I think that's insulting, and therefore both bad manners and improper etiquette – it implies that either the requester is too stupid to ask for the pepper that he really wants or too stupid to know he should want it. I don't like pepper, and anybody who insists on imposing it on me when I ask for salt had better watch out.

 
At 6/19/2007 11:31 PM, Blogger burrito eater said...

ask for salt, also get pepper. ask for pepper, also get salt. they are a matched set and never to be split.

that's what my (friend's) momma taught me.

Both sets of guidelines are important to me - much like it's important to Dennis Miller to be well spoken so that when he says something like "etiquette is bullshit" you know it's not for a lack of appropriate words.

 
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