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Put Those Hands Where I Can See Them, and Other Etiquette Rules

The National Post
January 8, 2000
Susanne Hiller

Does it really matter which way you pass the bread basket at a business luncheon?

Apparently it does, according to etiquette experts who say there has been a rise in the number of Toronto executives and techno geeks taking courses to brush up on their social graces.

North Americans have not traditionally attached as much significance to formal manners, particularly table etiquette, as Europeans, says Adeodata Czink, president of Business of Manners, a company that specializes in international protocol.

However, now that many companies are more involved in international trade, good manners are being taken more seriously here.

Simply decoding complicated data is no longer enough for the shy computer nerd to keep a competitive edge. "People don't have to socialize as much and don't have to develop social skills," says Ms. Czink. "Part of it is television. Part of it is the computer. But in the last two years, with the advent of global trade, people are suddenly realizing it is really important."

Business owners and employees need to be socially adept ambassadors for their companies, she says. Confidence and comfort at business functions come from knowing what to do -- and that includes which fork to use. In fact, table etiquette is the most popular component of her program.

"Bad table manners are the biggest giveaway that a person lacks manners," she says. "If you are in Europe and you don't know how to hold a fork, that is the first thing they notice. You can fake a huge amount, but you can't fake holding a fork."

Ms. Czink offers a one-day seminar in which the class (usually made up of about five people) works on the fuzzier, finer points of dining by practising during a four-course luncheon at the Elmwood Complex in downtown Toronto. Ms. Czink goes over all aspects of a high-profile business lunch, such as who should arrive first, who sits where, who orders first, which fork to use and how to hold a wine glass.

How do you leave your cutlery if you need to step away during a meal? Like a crossbones, lying across the plate, with the fork -- tines up -- over the knife.

During the meal, the class participants have to introduce themselves and write down all their mistakes on a notepad.

"If they click their teeth with a fork, I notice it," Ms. Czink says. "That is what they pay me for."

The class, which costs $195 per person, develops international etiquette by learning cultural differences -- subtleties that many people simply do not know and could actually prove to be deal breakers.

Corporations are suddenly concerned that employees may appear crude, especially with overseas clients.

"If you are in Japan being introduced to another gentleman, how far should you bow?" she asked. "How do you present your business card and what do you do with his card when you receive it? These are the questions people are starting to ask."

There are big differences in politeness and formality rules across the globe, she explains.

"North Americans are not that formal but that does not mean it is okay to call a Japanese person by their first name and tap them on the shoulder. North Americans are so ethnocentric. They don't realize other cultures do things differently."

One Toronto firm left a delegation from Thailand stranded at their hotel, not realizing they expected to be picked up for the morning meeting, says Ms. Czink. The deal fell through.

While a North American may eat with one hand on his lap, a cultured European would find this to be in poor taste. Since the middle ages both hands on the table show you're unarmed.

Joy Davies, a protocol and etiquette expert who operates the Toronto-based consulting firm Savoir Faire, says many of her clients are sent in by their bosses who recognize their top-performing employees don't have appropriate social skills.

Cash does not equate class, she stressed.

"I had a fellow drive here in a great big Cadillac with a wonderful job who had found out that the CEOs of the company kept him in the back- room because his appearance and everything about him was just annoying," Ms. Davies recounts.

"He was a brilliant accountant but they had to keep him out of sight."

Ms. Davies, who travelled with the Queen on her royal tour to Canada, says people have been getting ruder and ruder.

"Too many people are sitting in front of the computer and are not mingling with the public. They are absorbed with themselves and the machine."

She attributes much of the problem to '60s parents who espoused free love and no rules. "They have brought up children who are even worse. The kids today learn nothing at home." She cites everything from road rage, shouting in the streets, nasty messages left on voice and e-mail to baseball caps on visiting newspaper photographers as examples of a declining civilization.

"The barbarians are loose," she says. "There is a general lack of respect, courtesy."

People's uncaring attitudes are reflected in today's sloppy clothes, she adds.

"I wish to God those guys would take off those damn baseball hats. It's tragic. And I want women to be more feminine; they are too masculine in their projection and men resent it. Women are losing themselves. They have this long stringy hair and a masculine suit on. They are dividing themselves. You know, there are women in Italy who are garbage collectors who still wear earrings."

Ms. Davies says the people who are now coming to her for help have finally realized that good manners can take them "anywhere in the world."

"Good etiquette will hoist you up, advance you much further than you think," she says.

"Many people come to me asking why they have not been advanced at work and the reason is very simple. They need to know how to behave in high-pressure social business situations. They are now beginning to understand this."

Many of her clients want speech lessons. Ms. Davies tapes them talking and plays the tape back to them, pointing out the mistakes.

"People talk too fast, too loudly and need help with pronunciation and diction," she says. "A lot of people need to learn basic grammar and to develop a vocabulary. They can't express themselves. They say, 'You know what I mean?' I say, 'No I don't.' People here are too relaxed about their speech."

The most flagrant grammatical error in business today is the misuse of I and Me, Ms. Davies says. People don't know simple business etiquette rules, either.

When introducing people in a business setting, for example, always introduce up. This means the name of the more senior person or the client is said first. However, Ms. Davies agrees with Ms. Czink that business dining is the biggest problem area.

"A lack of table manners at a business dinner can destroy you completely," she said "I've seen the most polished people just fall apart when they start eating."

And for those who are still wondering, the bread basket goes to the right.

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Top dining mistakes that could sabotage your career, according to etiquette gurus Adeodata Czink and Joy Davies.

  1. Do not use a cellular phone. If you must turn on a cell phone during a meal, you must apologize beforehand. Then you must apologize when the phone rings. Leave the table to take the phone call. Apologize again after the phone call.
  2. Don't cut your food up into bite-size pieces. North Americans often cut up their meat (or main course) into pieces and transfer their fork to the right hand to eat. To be safe, you should follow the European model: Cut one piece at a time and keep your fork in your left hand at all times. "When you cut your food up like that, you look like you are about to feed a baby," says Ms. Czink.
  3. Don't chew with your mouth open. This, according to Ms. Czink, is a "huge" problem in North America and is considered highly offensive in other cultures.
  4. Don't touch your wine glass until the host makes a toast or drinks from his/her glass.
  5. Don't make mistakes using your utensils. It is very important, for example, to put your utensils in the 5 o'clock position to signal you are done at the end of the meal.
  6. Don't make yourself at home when visiting someone. Unless asked, do not operate another person's sound system or touch their CDs.
  7. Don't look down while shaking hands. When introduced, shake hands for the length of time it takes to note the colour of the other person's eyes.