McManners generation proper etiquette for those deal-making dinners

By Susan Breidenbach, Network World – 10/19/1998 – 12:00am


You can dress some techies up, but you can’t take them anywhere.

It’s a common lament these days, as a generation of IT professionals works its way up the corporate ladder and finds itself increasingly interacting with people rather than computers. Suddenly, dinner etiquette involves a lot more than whether a paper plate is really required under the pizza slice workers wolf down in their cubicles.

Fortunately, an industry of etiquette training firms is emerging to polish diamonds in the rough. Offerings cover the whole gamut of social skills, from basic table manners and personal appearance to conducting business with people from other cultures.

One such company is The Workshoppe, a Los Gatos, Calif., consultancy founded three years ago by computer industry veteran Sue Fox, was amazed at the behavior exhibited by the cyber-rich in some of Silicon Valley’s finer restaurants and suggested there was money to be made civilizing the natives. It made sense to Fox, then a manager at Apple.

“For a while in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was almost cool to be completely casual,” says Cathy Johnson, CEO of Mentor Training, a San Jose, Calif., software training firm that recently enrolled some of its employees in The Workshoppe’s course. “But in this world of increasing global competition, people have to think of all the different aspects of their presentation, including etiquette.”

An electronics distributor enlisted The Workshoppe’s help after the head of human resources observed the table manners of a newly hired executive at a client dinner. He was brilliant and nicely dressed but made every etiquette misstep in the book.

The executive tucked his napkin into his shirtfront, questioned the host’s wine choice, started eating before everyone else and leaned low over his plate to shovel food into his mouth. “She thought he was kidding at first,” The Workshoppe’s Fox recalls.

To correct such conduct, The Workshoppe conducts a crash course in table manners in a private room of an upscale restaurant. Over an elegant five-course meal, a dozen or so students learn the intricacies of place settings – not just which piece of flatware to use but also the standard resting and all-finished positions that send the right signals to the waiter.

Other pointers include:

The appropriate way to eat bread – tear off a small piece and butter it individually, and never use it to sop up sauce on your plate.

How to make or receive a toast – never drink to yourself, and don’t raise your glass above the level of others.

The proper way to hold a wine glass – by the stem for whites and by the bowl for reds.

After explaining the rules and the reasons for them, Janes circles the tables looking for infractions. The guilty parties sometimes try to rationalize their errant behavior. “I licked my knife because I didn’t want to get the tablecloth dirty between courses,” the CEO of a major company says – but Janes will have none of it. “Just ask the waiter for a new knife,” she says.

The course and meal cost about $150 per student, depending on the restaurant. Private lessons are also available. Businesses that have contracted The Workshoppe for etiquette instruction include Adobe, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Netscape, Sun and WebTV Networks.

“In two or three hours, we learned more than we could have through years of making faux pas one by one,” says Richard Keating, manager of laboratories and servers at Adobe in San Jose, Calif. “Engineers who have management aspirations should consider this type of training.” Other alumni say the dinner classes also make a great team-building event.

It pays to be polite.

While IT workers make easy targets, the manners void is endemic throughout our point-and-click society.

However, the pendulum is beginning to swing back in the other direction. Business fraternities at universities are attending etiquette classes, and Petersen’s Web site generates a lot of e-mail from students asking advice. People now see that knowing how to handle any situation is empowering and may even determine whether or not they get a job.

“People are in tune with making transactions in a flash, but creating business relationships takes time and manners,” says trend spotter Faith Popcorn, CEO of BrainReserve in New York. “We have so much technology, there’s not a lot of face-to-face conversation. People need to be retrained and refocused on manners.”

Answering the call, Peggy Post recently dusted off grandmother-in-law Emily Post’s magnum opus Etiquette and revised it for the new millennium. The 75th anniversary edition addresses the proper use of cellular phones, beepers, fax machines, e-mail and telephone features such as voice mail, call forwarding and caller ID.

If Post’s 864-page text seems too long and staid, take heart: Network World’s sister company IDG Books has signed The Workshoppe’s Fox up to write Etiquette For Dummies. Scheduled for release in the fall of 1999, this book is being created from the ground up with you, not your grandmother, in mind.

Although most would agree etiquette is important, some believe the gauche young millionaire dressed in tattered jeans and a vendor logo T-shirt who subsists on junk food part is part of Silicon Valley’s charm.

But the manners mavens say it’s all part of the inevitable maturation of the high-tech industry. Behavior that was cute in the child can be utterly tiresome in the adult.

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