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“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 dinner.

Dinners where Walter’s spotty education in formal etiquette was laid bare, as the Europeans’ flawless manners fueled his self-consciousness.

“ 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 much?”

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 she briefly 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 about it.”

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 fast.”

The famously independent American public might also doggedly avoid etiquette as a symbol of class differentiation, Carpin said, taking care to avoid stuffy elitism. “Good manners are hardly snobby,” she said.

“ 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 inclined, 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 from me.”

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 them.

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 diner’s plate 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 plate.

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.