By Hope Hamashige, Los Angeles Times – 11/07/2005 – 12:00am
A top executive at a Los Angeles finance firm had a habit he couldn’t break even when sitting down to dinner with business associates. He started each meal by taking a piece of bread, then carving it methodically into 20 even pieces. He buttered each tiny piece and, before popping them into his mouth, he cleaned the butter knife with his tongue.
“He was a brilliant person,” said Pamela Hillings, the Pasadena based etiquette expert who was hired to help improve the man’s table manners. “But, he was about to be fired because clients were complaining about his manners.”
While stuffing a napkin in your shirt collar or tossing a tie over a shoulder may not be the single factor that makes or breaks a business deal, manners, or lack thereof, still matter because appearances leave a lasting impression about a person’s overall abilities.
“We make character judgments in the first few seconds of meeting someone,” said Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival in Los Gatos. “If they are untidy, it is going to make an impression.”
Fox, the author of “Business Etiquette for Dummies,” added that a good number of people consider learning the minutiae of fine manners anachronistic in the 21st century.
After all, even at the highest levels of business, formerly formal business conduct has largely gone by the wayside.
Executives have chucked threepiece suits in favor of comfortable khakis. Ping-pong tables have replaced conference room tables.
Using first names in the office, even when addressing superiors, is now de riguer. But, even in a dresseddown environment, etiquette still matters.
Top companies across California still hire manners consultants like Hillings and Fox to train executives how to make a good impression by entertaining well. Etiquette courses also have made their way into higher education.
Etiquette classes offered
UC Davis became the first business school to teach MBA students the fine art of the four-course meal and how to dress appropriately for business when it began offering etiquette seminars in 1991.
Fox, who has given courses at Stanford University and Menlo College, said teaching courses at colleges and universities now is the fastest growing component of her business.
Just as office manners are less formal, business entertaining, too, is an ever less formal affair.
Chances are, anyone who regularly meets clients for coffee rather than an expensive meal, is never going to face confusion over which fork to use, Fox said.
But, experts note that there are rules of etiquette that apply even to 5 a.m. gatherings at a doughnut shop that has only plastic utensils.
The host should always arrive before the guest and make sure his or her guest is greeted at the door.
The person who invites always pays. And, even if the meeting is just taking place over a $1.50 cup of coffee, it still is advisable not to slurp or talk with a full mouth. Bad manners are annoying to companions even in a coffeehouse.
“People think etiquette is about being stuffy,” Fox said. “Really, it’s about making people around you feel comfortable.”
Gloria Peterson, a Chicagobased business etiquette consultant and founder of Global Protocol, agreed that making other people comfortable is a top goal of good manners.
She added that etiquette and the art of making other people happy extends beyond table manners. She advises clients to find out as much as they can about the person they are entertaining because, even though taking someone to an upscale restaurant is a classic, they might discover this is not the best option.
A client who is a serious baseball fan, for example, might rather fill up on hot dogs at the stadium than dress up for a five-course affair.
This is particularly true, Peterson said, of people who travel; they might like to use their free time visiting a museum or taking a walking tour of the city. The job of the host is to find out what might interest them and give them choices.
Pleasing the clients
Demonstrating proper manners can become even trickier when the situation calls for, as it often does in Southern California, entertaining business associates from abroad. Peterson said, again, a little research can go a long way.
She recommended getting in touch with consulates in the United States for tips on what business people from that country expect from a business trip.
She added it is appropriate to ask the person coming if there is something in particular they want to do or see while on their business trip.
“You would be surprised how many people from abroad want to see our shopping malls instead of going out for an expensive meal,” she said. “Of course, a good host will have perfect manners and will make sure their guest is comfortable even when they are eating at the food court at the mall.”
Hope Hamashige is a freelance writer based in Denver.
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