“Everything in its Place”
Class offers tips on how to behave properly
By Pete Mortensen, Staff Writer
Stephen Walter spent two years in Dusseldorf, Germany as an employee
of Johnson Controls, Inc. His wife was president of the city’s
American Women’s Club, and frequently hosted ambassadors for
Dinners where Walter’s spotty education in formal etiquette
was laid bare, as the Europeans’ flawless manners fueled his
I sat up straight and that’s it,” said Walter, now a
consultant with Holland-based Courageous Leadership. “I know
which fork and spoon to use occasionally, but it’s not a really
natural thing. I want to know what I’m doing. I’m not
sure, do guys still pull chairs out for women at the table? Are you
supposed to put the napkin in their lap for them, or is that too
In order to make sure he’s eating his fish course with the
right fork and that his basis for etiquette is not just the basic
table manners taught by his parents with help from “a movie
you’ve seen in the olden days,” Walter will take a seminar
Nov. 10 in business dining etiquette at Grand Valley State University.
The three-hour class will lead students through a four-course meal,
from appetizer to dessert, with numerous interactive demonstrations.
I got a sense whether Europeans did it or not, they all knew the
rules. It was clear to them at a ruled-based dinner. They knew what
to do.” Walter said. “I got to a rule-based dinner, and
I would sit up and watch other people. I felt stiff. I don’t
want to feel stiff. I’m a consultant here in Holland, and we
do a lot of entertaining of clients. I want to be able to naturally
show we know what we’re doing.”
Diane Phelps, the director of professional programs for GVSU’s
continuing education program, said she got the idea after speaking
with Holland’s Stacey Carpin during a meeting of Holland Young
Professionals. Carpin runs Etissentials LLC, a business focused primarily
on teaching etiquette to children.
Certain skills don’t seem to come so easily anymore for the
current generation of workers, starting with how people express themselves
in conversation and in writing,” Phelps said. “Folks
aren’t learning that type of stuff at home anymore.”
Carpin, 31, said she knows formal etiquette mainly because her
parents were very strict about manners. After a move to Atlanta
worked for a company that did in-school programs teaching etiquette
basics. After relocating to Holland, she opened her business, and
has held such events as princess teas and teddy bear teas for young
audiences at the Alpen Rose.
Having taught many children, Carpin said helping adults was another
goal. She said impressive dining skills make or break a sale or
even an employment opportunity.
A would-be sales associate, for example, needs certain acumen.
If you don’t have the skills to eat with your boss, he’s
not going to hire you to take other people out to dinner.”
It’s true that Europeans continue to have better etiquette
than Americans, Carpin said. As the birthplace of Western manners,
citizens on the Continent take pride in their traditions. Meanwhile,
many Americans make major faux pas with alarming regularity.
I think licking their fingers is the No. 1 rule people are breaking,” she
said. “It’s just such a habit, that when you’re
licking your fingers and then passing someone the food, you don’t
think about it, but the person receiving the food is definitely thinking
Sue Stoddard, the vice president of finance for Heart of West
Michigan United Way, will also be attending the course. She’s most interested
to learn the formal rules of banquet-style dining, such as which
way to pass. She also wants to test her pre-existing knowledge.
Which way do you pass the rolls?” she said. “I was taught
one way, a lot of times, they’re going the other way….
I’m looking for more of the fine-tuning.”
Why American children don’t get a rigorous etiquette education
in the home anymore is debatable, but Carpin points to factors like
decreasing rates of dining as a family and a faster-paced lifestyle.
She said schools on the East Coast and in the South do some etiquette
training during class or in after-school programs, and some communities
are adding cotillion programs to preserve this knowledge.
It was a lost art, but from what I’ve read, the ball is changing,” she
said. “Etiquette is coming back to the United States and coming
The famously independent American public might also doggedly
avoid etiquette as a symbol of class differentiation, Carpin
care to avoid stuffy elitism. “Good manners are hardly snobby,” she
You’re a chameleon when you have etiquette. A lot of people
who meet me for the first time see I’m real casual and fun,
and then they ask, ‘What do you do?’” she said. “When
I say, ‘I teach etiquette,’ all of a sudden they feel
uncomfortable. That’s not the sort of person I am; I want people
to be comfortable. I’m not sitting up straight every minute
of the day – it stresses your back! But I know that if I’m
in a situation where it’s not causal and I have to turn that
light (of etiquette) on, then I can adapt, and it’s opened
up opportunities for me.”
Contemporary etiquette does have an answer for Walter’s question
of appropriate table manners between genders.
Men are no longer required to seat female companions or place
their napkins at business affairs, according to Carpin. If so
they should ask permission first. It’s only polite.
Tips for formal dining from Stacey Carpin
Many Americans have a grasp on basic etiquette, but the advanced
stages of the social art elude many.
Some finer points of the craft:
Eat soup by dipping your spoon in the center of the
bowl and moving it up and away before consuming it, allowing
any stray drops to spill into the bowl.
Remember the phrase: “Like a ship out to sea, I spoon my soup away
Dinner rolls should be torn apart, with each piece
buttered separately. Hot rolls are an exception, and should
be buttered all at once.
The dessert spoon and fork should not be picked up
like normal tableware. Instead, grasp each utensil from its
resting place simultaneously and slide
both down the table to a dining position beside the plate before lifting
Women should be seated to the right of men. The reason
for this rule is lost to time, but it is a rule nonetheless.
Place cards should not be switched,
as the host has seated people in a specific order for a reason.
Sugar packets should be placed under the lip of a
after use in coffee or tea.
In traditional continental dining, the salad fork
is the nearest the plate, to the right of the meat and fish
forks respectively. The proper order
is alphabetical: fish, meat, salad. American settings with
the salad fork to the far left is California-style.
To indicate your impending return, fold your napkin
and selt it on your table. Waitstaff will recognize this signal.
To indicate the completion of
your meal, fold your napkin and place it under the lip of your
To show you will continue a course following a break,
cross your knife and fork, tines down, over the plate. To inform
servers of the completion of
a course, arrange knife and fork in parallel at a diagonal
from northeast to southwest.