An evening learning etiquette rituals not useful in real world

Victor Limjoco Column

I have the table manners of a 2-year-old. I really can’t work with peas, which somehow wind up everywhere but my mouth. I belch, I get food everywhere and sometimes hold my fork so I’m not stabbing just my food, but also stabbing people. You can guess my reaction when I got the e-mail about an etiquette dinner, held Thursday: I simply dribbled more peas out of my mouth while laughing.

But I decided to go just to see what complicated, asinine rules and obscure utensils they’d try to teach us. The program was called “Etiquette: Making a Positive Impression to Gain a Competitive Advantage.” Etiquette business consultant Nonnie Cameron geared the program toward college students struggling to impress a potential employer or even a future mother-in-law. To Mom Nonnie, as she desperately wanted to be called, these lessons are vital for anyone who wanted to succeed in the world.

We started the lessons even before the food arrived. According to Mom Nonnie, most of us had our nametags pinned incorrectly. The nametag always should be worn on the right side of the shirt, she said, so that your dining companions can see it while they shake your hand. Already I could hear students unconvinced about the logic of etiquette grumbling under their breath. You could definitely pick out the science nerds in the audience as we tried to figure out how placing the nametag on the right side of one’s shirt would make it easier for others to see.

Then Mom Nonnie observed that America is the only place left in the civilized world where people still put their hands under the table. Hearing this, we all tried awkwardly to position our hands “above deck,” not quite sure what to do with our newly visible body parts. Mom told us that other cultures believe that holding one’s hands beneath the table is “suspicious.” As she said, “who knows what you’re doing under there?” Wink, wink. Throughout the evening I repeatedly forgot the rule and then, remembering it, frantically moved my hands from under the table, fearing that my fellow diners saw me as a twisted pervert.

Mom Nonnie also discussed the utensil positions that communicate to the wait staff that you’re finished with the dish in front of you (parallel 10-to-4 o’clock across the plate) or that you’re simply resting for a while (crossed utensils). I guess this is important if you’re too lazy to actually talk to the wait staff, and you’d rather silently communicate with them through the super-secret fork and knife code.

Education senior Erin Metz had mixed feelings about the program:

“There were times when I thought the information being conveyed was so completely obscure and not central to having good manners,” Metz said. “It was like gaining some kind of membership into this club where you know to put your knife at 4 o’clock.”

In the end I was glad to pick up some useful etiquette techniques from Mom. But with some of them – like the rule that you must always pass the salt and pepper together, regardless of what has been requested – I wonder if I’d look like a pretentious freak at the dinner table: “Silly buffoon, I don’t care that you didn’t ask for the pepper. It’s good etiquette!”

Until that day comes, I’ll just be dining at the luxurious Le Willie’s Food Court, still struggling with my peas, hands definitely above the table.