Finding Your Manners; A Lost Generation of Executives Needs Help at the Business Table

By Julie Flaherty, The New York Times – 02/13/1999 – 12:00am


Judith Re joined her guests at the round banquet table, delicately placed her napkin on her lap, and began telling horror stories. There was the executive who routinely took her shoes off under the table, then lost one. The man who sneezed directly over the soup course. The woman who wiped her mouth with a piece of pita bread and then ate it. (Economical, perhaps, but not socially savvy.

While her anecdotes did not exactly strike fear into her guests, they did remind the 11 men and women why they paid $275 apiece to attend her business etiquette class at the Ritz-Carlton on a recent evening.

”Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about breaking bread with your clients,” said Ms. Re, an etiquette consultant who has cured many corporate executives of bad table manners. ”We’re talking about turning that restaurant into your board room.”

Ms. Re, who has taught manners to children at the Ritz-Carlton for 12 years, began the one-night executive etiquette classes this year to help the increasing number of adults who come to her with questions about business meal propriety.

”The economy has become very full, and because of that, the people are doing a lot more entertaining,” she said. ”People want to sharpen their entertaining skills. What’s happening is, people know everything there is to know about their business. That’s what they’ve done well; they’ve learned their skills, and they’re great at it. Now they want to master this. They want to make sure they’re putting their best foot forward.”

”In the 80’s, people didn’t have the same kind of feeling,” she said. Judith Re joined her guests at the round banquet table, delicately placed her napkin on her lap, and began telling horror stories. There was the executive who routinely took her shoes off under the table, then lost one. The man who sneezed directly over the soup course. The woman who wiped her mouth with a piece of pita bread and then ate it. (Economical, perhaps, but not socially savvy.

While her anecdotes did not exactly strike fear into her guests, they did remind the 11 men and women why they paid $275 apiece to attend her business etiquette class at the Ritz-Carlton on a recent evening.

”Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about breaking bread with your clients,” said Ms. Re, an etiquette consultant who has cured many corporate executives of bad table manners. ”We’re talking about turning that restaurant into your board room.”

Ms. Re, who has taught manners to children at the Ritz-Carlton for 12 years, began the one-night executive etiquette classes this year to help the increasing number of adults who come to her with questions about business meal propriety.

”The economy has become very full, and because of that, the people are doing a lot more entertaining,” she said. ”People want to sharpen their entertaining skills. What’s happening is, people know everything there is to know about their business. That’s what they’ve done well; they’ve learned their skills, and they’re great at it. Now they want to master this. They want to make sure they’re putting their best foot forward.”

”In the 80’s, people didn’t have the same kind of feeling,” she said. ”They’d say: ‘You must be crazy, Judith. We just have money and that’s all that counts.’ ”

It pays to have the gift of manners these days. Corporations are seeking out consultants in savoir-faire to train their employees. Etiquette schools that once catered only to children and diplomats have started offering courses with such titles as ”Business Etiquette for the New Millennium.”

One five-year-old consultant group in California, called Etiquette Survival, finds a wealth of clients in the socially awkward executives of Silicon Valley.

M.B.A. candidates at Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver are required to attend an etiquette dinner, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs a not-for-credit charm school each January. Ms. Re, who learned her manners at her parents’ dinner table, says graduate students whose parents came of age in the 1970’s had things other than p’s and q’s to mind, like the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution.

Modern times demand new rules, too. As Ms. Re’s class supped on olive-crusted sea bass and filet of beef with caramelized shallots, the director provided lessons in pager protocol, cell phone etiquette and avoiding liability.

Paul Sullivan, a investment company director, said he took clients out to dine three or four times a week but still has shortcomings at the table.

”I still get confused about whether my salad fork is the one to the left or the right,” he said as he practiced setting a table in a class exercise.

Anne-Marie Maguire, who works at Charles River Ventures, a venture capital firm, managed to prop her serviette into an M-shape, proclaimed it ”good enough,” and marched off to the soup course.

Ms. Re started her instructions with the basics. A Madeira consomme with truffle shavings is eaten by swiping the spoon from the 6 o’clock position to 12 o’clock. (”Seven to 1, that doesn’t work?” Mr. Sullivan joked.) No blowing or slurping, please.

What to do when a dessert fork hits the floor? Or a glob of black tapanade plunks onto the white table linen? Mercifully, much of the success of the meal rests on the white-gloved servers, who quickly retrieve and replace the fallen fork and immediately swipe clean the mess with a sterling table scraper.

All pretty standard, right? Even those who think themselves well mannered were taken aback when the teacher advised against ordering alcohol at a business.

”Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry,” she said. ”You don’t drink wine on someone else’s clock.”

If a client has a questionable amount to drink, she said, ”Please make sure that when the server is right next to you, turn to that person and ask, ‘Would you like me to get you a cab?’ ” In acknowledgment, the word ”liability” was murmured around the table.

(This being a dinner, and the Ritz being the Ritz, wine is served with each course.)

As the intermezzo of cassis sorbet was served, Ms. Re reminded her students to turn their beepers to silent at a meal and excuse themselves if they must return a page. Cell phones should be left behind, she said. If the client decides to take a call during the meal, she suggested continuing to eat, but more slowly. If the call continues for 10 minutes, ”then you know you’re in trouble,” she said. ”You’ve lost them.”

”Do you eavesdrop?” she asked devilishly. ”Of course.”

Ms. Re’s adult students can be even more nervous than her preteen pupils, timidly asking things such as whether it is all right to eat the entire spear of asparagus, or just the tip. (Ms. Re loves the whole thing.) But by the time they sipped the dessert wine (the fourth of the evening) the students had begun to rattle off questions. Is it allowable to switch between the American style of eating and the European style?

”I still feel like I’m eating upside down,” Ms. Maguire said, as Ms. Re showed her how to use the knife to ”escort” some garlic potatoes onto the back of her fork. Either style is acceptable, but no switching back and forth.

Are there certain foods that should not be ordered at a business lunch?

”I wouldn’t order the 12-ounce burger with the au jus dripping off it,” Ms. Re said. Linguine with clam sauce is her own nemesis.

Tonight’s dessert, peach a la Ritz, was a challenge all its own: a mousse garnished with a foot-high triangle of chocolate lace. Rather than risk toppling the tower off the plate, most guests ate around theirs.

Although corporate attire had been requested, Ms. Re, dressed in a long-sleeved, toe-length black dress accented with a gold pin, was not out of place.

”I set the rules,” she said when asked where she finds her etiquette knowledge. ”I also listen to the pulse, everything from riding the metro trains to when you’re traveling on an airplane. You’re very visual, and you ask people questions, and that’s what I do.” She does not do color analysis or grin-and-greet classes, and no, she does not read Ann Landers.

A successful business lunch, she said, is all about making the client feel taken care of. If a client suggests a particular restaurant, go there in advance to choose the best table for conducting business. You can present your credit card to the maitre d’ in advance, to save any confusion about who gets the bill later. Choose a seat that allows you to keep eye contact with the server, but gives the client the best view. If the guest has a coat or valet ticket, ask for it and pay the tip. Don’t discuss business as soon as you sit down, but let the conversation flow naturally.

Many people say the time of the power lunch is past, that people are too busy to have lunch outside the office. For Mr. Sullivan, the business meal is a way to break through the ”wall of technology.”

”If it’s just voice mail and just phones and our product is a little better than their product,” then there’s little to set the company apart, he said. ”But if I can make that personal contact. . . .”

Ms. Re added: ”Out technology is growing at such a fast pace that I don’t think people have time to think. And I don’t blame the people. I blame the technology.”

”There’s just got to be a choice about what you bring over into the millennium,Judith Re joined her guests at the round banquet table, delicately placed her napkin on her lap, and began telling horror stories. There was the executive who routinely took her shoes off under the table, then lost one. The man who sneezed directly over the soup course. The woman who wiped her mouth with a piece of pita bread and then ate it. (Economical, perhaps, but not socially savvy.

While her anecdotes did not exactly strike fear into her guests, they did remind the 11 men and women why they paid $275 apiece to attend her business etiquette class at the Ritz-Carlton on a recent evening.

”Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about breaking bread with your clients,” said Ms. Re, an etiquette consultant who has cured many corporate executives of bad table manners. ”We’re talking about turning that restaurant into your board room.”

Ms. Re, who has taught manners to children at the Ritz-Carlton for 12 years, began the one-night executive etiquette classes this year to help the increasing number of adults who come to her with questions about business meal propriety.

”The economy has become very full, and because of that, the people are doing a lot more entertaining,” she said. ”People want to sharpen their entertaining skills. What’s happening is, people know everything there is to know about their business. That’s what they’ve done well; they’ve learned their skills, and they’re great at it. Now they want to master this. They want to make sure they’re putting their best foot forward.”

”In the 80’s, people didn’t have the same kind of feeling,” she said. ”They’d say: ‘You must be crazy, Judith. We just have money and that’s all that counts.’ ”

It pays to have the gift of manners these days. Corporations are seeking out consultants in savoir-faire to train their employees. Etiquette schools that once catered only to children and diplomats have started offering courses with such titles as ”Business Etiquette for the New Millennium.”

One five-year-old consultant group in California, called Etiquette Survival, finds a wealth of clients in the socially awkward executives of Silicon Valley.

M.B.A. candidates at Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver are required to attend an etiquette dinner, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs a not-for-credit charm school each January. Ms. Re, who learned her manners at her parents’ dinner table, says graduate students whose parents came of age in the 1970’s had things other than p’s and q’s to mind, like the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution.

Modern times demand new rules, too. As Ms. Re’s class supped on olive-crusted sea bass and filet of beef with caramelized shallots, the director provided lessons in pager protocol, cell phone etiquette and avoiding liability.

Paul Sullivan, a investment company director, said he took clients out to dine three or four times a week but still has shortcomings at the table.

”I still get confused about whether my salad fork is the one to the left or the right,” he said as he practiced setting a table in a class exercise.

Anne-Marie Maguire, who works at Charles River Ventures, a venture capital firm, managed to prop her serviette into an M-shape, proclaimed it ”good enough,” and marched off to the soup course.

Ms. Re started her instructions with the basics. A Madeira consomme with truffle shavings is eaten by swiping the spoon from the 6 o’clock position to 12 o’clock. (”Seven to 1, that doesn’t work?” Mr. Sullivan joked.) No blowing or slurping, please.

What to do when a dessert fork hits the floor? Or a glob of black tapanade plunks onto the white table linen? Mercifully, much of the success of the meal rests on the white-gloved servers, who quickly retrieve and replace the fallen fork and immediately swipe clean the mess with a sterling table scraper.

All pretty standard, right? Even those who think themselves well mannered were taken aback when the teacher advised against ordering alcohol at a business.

”Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry,” she said. ”You don’t drink wine on someone else’s clock.”

If a client has a questionable amount to drink, she said, ”Please make sure that when the server is right next to you, turn to that person and ask, ‘Would you like me to get you a cab?’ ” In acknowledgment, the word ”liability” was murmured around the table.

(This being a dinner, and the Ritz being the Ritz, wine is served with each course.)

As the intermezzo of cassis sorbet was served, Ms. Re reminded her students to turn their beepers to silent at a meal and excuse themselves if they must return a page. Cell phones should be left behind, she said. If the client decides to take a call during the meal, she suggested continuing to eat, but more slowly. If the call continues for 10 minutes, “then you know you’re in trouble,” she said. “You’ve lost them.”

“Do you eavesdrop?” she asked devilishly. “Of course.”

Ms. Re’s adult students can be even more nervous than her preteen pupils, timidly asking things such as whether it is all right to eat the entire spear of asparagus, or just the tip. (Ms. Re loves the whole thing.) But by the time they sipped the dessert wine (the fourth of the evening) the students had begun to rattle off questions. Is it allowable to switch between the American style of eating and the European style?

“I still feel like I’m eating upside down,” Ms. Maguire said, as Ms. Re showed her how to use the knife to ‘escort’ some garlic potatoes onto the back of her fork. Either style is acceptable, but no switching back and forth.

Are there certain foods that should not be ordered at a business lunch?

“I wouldn’t order the 12-ounce burger with the au jus dripping off it,” Ms. Re said. Linguine with clam sauce is her own nemesis.

Tonight’s dessert, peach a la Ritz, was a challenge all its own: a mousse garnished with a foot-high triangle of chocolate lace. Rather than risk toppling the tower off the plate, most guests ate around theirs.

Although corporate attire had been requested, Ms. Re, dressed in a long-sleeved, toe-length black dress accented with a gold pin, was not out of place.

“I set the rules,” she said when asked where she finds her etiquette knowledge. “I also listen to the pulse, everything from riding the metro trains to when you’re traveling on an airplane. You’re very visual, and you ask people questions, and that’s what I do.” She does not do color analysis or grin-and-greet classes, and no, she does not read Ann Landers.

A successful business lunch, she said, is all about making the client feel taken care of. If a client suggests a particular restaurant, go there in advance to choose the best table for conducting business. You can present your credit card to the maitre d’ in advance, to save any confusion about who gets the bill later. Choose a seat that allows you to keep eye contact with the server, but gives the client the best view. If the guest has a coat or valet ticket, ask for it and pay the tip. Don’t discuss business as soon as you sit down, but let the conversation flow naturally.

Many people say the time of the power lunch is past, that people are too busy to have lunch outside the office. For Mr. Sullivan, the business meal is a way to break through the “wall of technology.”

“If it’s just voice mail and just phones and our product is a little better than their product,” then there’s little to set the company apart, he said. ”But if I can make that personal contact. . . .”

Ms. Re added: “Out technology is growing at such a fast pace that I don’t think people have time to think. And I don’t blame the people. I blame the technology.”

“There’s just got to be a choice about what you bring over into the millennium,” she said. In fact, she mused, the Internet could be a good way to spread the gospel of etiquette.

For now, she sends each student off with a booklet of her rules. In it, she reminds them not to use long words when short ones will do, and if they do not know how to pronounce the name of a wine, it is fine to order it by its number on the menu.

”The only way in which you can overdo it, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, ”is when you’re pretending you’re something you’re not.” she said. In fact, she mused, the Internet could be a good way to spread the gospel of etiquette.

For now, she sends each student off with a booklet of her rules. In it, she reminds them not to use long words when short ones willdo, and if they do not know how to pronounce the name of a wine, it is fine to order it by its number on the menu.

”The only way in which you can overdo it, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, ”is when you’re pretending you’re something you’re not.”They’d say: ‘You must be crazy, Judith. We just have money and that’s all that counts.’ ”

It pays to have the gift of manners these days. Corporations are seeking out consultants in savoir-faire to train their employees. Etiquette schools that once catered only to children and diplomats have started offering courses with such titles as ”Business Etiquette for the New Millennium.”

One five-year-old consultant group in California, called Etiquette Survival, finds a wealth of clients in the socially awkward executives of Silicon Valley.

M.B.A. candidates at Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver are required to attend an etiquette dinner, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs a not-for-credit charm school each January. Ms. Re, who learned her manners at her parents’ dinner table, says graduate students whose parents came of age in the 1970’s had things other than p’s and q’s to mind, like the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution.

Modern times demand new rules, too. As Ms. Re’s class supped on olive-crusted sea bass and filet of beef with caramelized shallots, the director provided lessons in pager protocol, cell phone etiquette and avoiding liability.

Paul Sullivan, a investment company director, said he took clients out to dine three or four times a week but still has shortcomings at the table.

“I still get confused about whether my salad fork is the one to the left or the right,” he said as he practiced setting a table in a class exercise.

Anne-Marie Maguire, who works at Charles River Ventures, a venture capital firm, managed to prop her serviette into an M-shape, proclaimed it ”good enough,” and marched off to the soup course.

Ms. Re started her instructions with the basics. A Madeira consomme with truffle shavings is eaten by swiping the spoon from the 6 o’clock position to 12 o’clock. (“Seven to 1, that doesn’t work?” Mr. Sullivan joked.) No blowing or slurping, please.

What to do when a dessert fork hits the floor? Or a glob of black tapanade plunks onto the white table linen? Mercifully, much of the success of the meal rests on the white-gloved servers, who quickly retrieve and replace the fallen fork and immediately swipe clean the mess with a sterling table scraper.

All pretty standard, right? Even those who think themselves well mannered were taken aback when the teacher advised against ordering alcohol at a business.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry,” she said. “You don’t drink wine on someone else’s clock.”

If a client has a questionable amount to drink, she said, “Please make sure that when the server is right next to you, turn to that person and ask, ‘Would you like me to get you a cab?” In acknowledgment, the word ‘liability’ was murmured around the table.

(This being a dinner, and the Ritz being the Ritz, wine is served with each course.)

As the intermezzo of cassis sorbet was served, Ms. Re reminded her students to turn their beepers to silent at a meal and excuse themselves if they must return a page. Cell phones should be left behind, she said. If the client decides to take a call during the meal, she suggested continuing to eat, but more slowly. If the call continues for 10 minutes, “then you know you’re in trouble,” she said. “You’ve lost them.”

“Do you eavesdrop?” she asked devilishly. “Of course.”

Ms. Re’s adult students can be even more nervous than her preteen pupils, timidly asking things such as whether it is all right to eat the entire spear of asparagus, or just the tip. (Ms. Re loves the whole thing.) But by the time they sipped the dessert wine (the fourth of the evening) the students had begun to rattle off questions. Is it allowable to switch between the American style of eating and the European style?

“I still feel like I’m eating upside down,” Ms. Maguire said, as Ms. Re showed her how to use the knife to “escort” some garlic potatoes onto the back of her fork. Either style is acceptable, but no switching back and forth.

Are there certain foods that should not be ordered at a business lunch?

“I wouldn’t order the 12-ounce burger with the au jus dripping off it,” Ms. Re said. Linguine with clam sauce is her own nemesis.

Tonight’s dessert, peach a la Ritz, was a challenge all its own: a mousse garnished with a foot-high triangle of chocolate lace. Rather than risk toppling the tower off the plate, most guests ate around theirs.

Although corporate attire had been requested, Ms. Re, dressed in a long-sleeved, toe-length black dress accented with a gold pin, was not out of place.

“I set the rules,” she said when asked where she finds her etiquette knowledge. “I also listen to the pulse, everything from riding the metro trains to when you’re traveling on an airplane. You’re very visual, and you ask people questions, and that’s what I do.” She does not do color analysis or grin-and-greet classes, and no, she does not read Ann Landers.

A successful business lunch, she said, is all about making the client feel taken care of. If a client suggests a particular restaurant, go there in advance to choose the best table for conducting business. You can present your credit card to the maitre d’ in advance, to save any confusion about who gets the bill later. Choose a seat that allows you to keep eye contact with the server, but gives the client the best view. If the guest has a coat or valet ticket, ask for it and pay the tip. Don’t discuss business as soon as you sit down, but let the conversation flow naturally.

Many people say the time of the power lunch is past, that people are too busy to have lunch outside the office. For Mr. Sullivan, the business meal is a way to break through the ”wall of technology.”

“If it’s just voice mail and just phones and our product is a little better than their product,” then there’s little to set the company apart, he said. ”But if I can make that personal contact. . . .”

Ms. Re added: “Out technology is growing at such a fast pace that I don’t think people have time to think. And I don’t blame the people. I blame the technology.”

“There’s just got to be a choice about what you bring over into the millennium,” she said. In fact, she mused, the Internet could be a good way to spread the gospel of etiquette.

For now, she sends each student off with a booklet of her rules. In it, she reminds them not to use long words when short ones willdo, and if they do not know how to pronounce the name of a wine, it is fine to order it by its number on the menu.

“The only way in which you can overdo it, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “is when you’re pretending you’re something you’re not.”

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