Mom Was Right!

By Deborah Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) – 09/14/2005 – 12:00am


“The gentle mind by gentle deeds is known; For a man by nothing is so well betrayed as by his manners.” Edmund Spenser, English poet, 1552-99

Remember all those things your mother told you? “Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t pick up your food with your fingers. Use your fork and knife. Don’t bring that telephone to the table. Let someone else talk for a change. For heaven’s sake, use your napkin, not your sleeve!”

Well, business etiquette consultants are saying the same things today.

Good manners matter. They were important years ago at mother’s table, and are vital today if you are looking to close the deal, get the job or impress potential clients at social gatherings.

People are still watching, but stakes are higher. The decisions and judgments being made about you could affect your future.

“All those things your mother told you really do matter,” said Daniel Booker, managing partner in the Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith Shaw & McClay. “Good manners are important.”

Booker, whose duties include hiring attorneys for the firm, said job applicants should understand that behavior is as important as
credentials.

Of the candidates he’s interviewed over the years, one definitely stands out, but for the wrong reasons. The young man had graduated at the top of his class from a prestigious law school. He was impeccably dressed and came with glowing references. But what Booker remembers most is the way he ate chicken during lunch with the firm’s partners.

“Instead of using his fork and knife, he picked the chicken up with his hands and ate it,” Booker said. “He didn’t use his napkin, either. He smacked his lips and licked his fingers. It was extraordinary.”

Because the young man dined at a posh place as he would at a backyard barbecue, he didn’t get the job.

“I was offended by his table manners and couldn’t recommend hiring him,” Booker said. “People have to have top credentials to work here, but they also must have the ability to interact well with our clients and with people within the organization. Some things are just basic.”

What seems basic to most is lost on many, which is why business etiquette consultant Sue Fox is so busy these days.

“Manners are extremely important in business,” Fox said. “Many large corporations won’t hire a person at director level or above until they have seen his table manners.”

The president of The Etiquette Survival Group, based in Los Gatos, Calif., Fox teaches manners at corporations, schools and to the general public. She’s the author of the book “Etiquette for Dummies” and “Business Etiquette For Dummies” is a sought-after expert often interviewed by the news media, recently by Sam Donaldson for his Internet show. Her workshops and products can be found at the Web site www.etiquettesurvival.com.

“We make character judgments within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone,” Fox said. “Grooming, manners and comportment all matter. Slouching or leaning your elbows on the table make a very poor impression. This isn’t rocket science, it just takes a little practice.”

For the nervous job applicant hoping to please, Fox suggests ordering food that is easy to eat at a luncheon interview. This is not the time to order a hamburger, spaghetti, fried chicken or lobster, she said.

“It seems like good manners missed a generation. I’m not sure why — maybe it’s a result of the ‘ 60s. It seems that manners are not being taught in the home as they used to be.”

In the home is where Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey learned manners before he started school.

“My father was a tyrant when it came to manners,” Roddey said. “He came from an old Southern family where manners were very important. Back then, when we went out to Sunday dinner, we didn’t go to a restaurant, we went to someone’s house.”

His father had an important rule: If the hosts didn’t compliment young Roddey on his manners, his father administered a whipping to him when they got home.

“It didn’t matter to him if I had done anything wrong or not; I had to receive a compliment,” Roddey said. “After two whippings, I got to where I could get a compliment within about 40 seconds of entering the door. I was beyond mannerly. I was courtly.”

Roddey said his early training was reinforced by the military when he entered the Marine Corps, and when he worked in business marketing, “where the customer is always right and you are nice to everyone.” He is alarmed by etiquette infractions he often sees.

“At any event I attend, I see half a dozen or so examples of poor behavior,” Roddey said. “A lot of time it is by younger people who haven’t had discipline in their family life.”

Among them are people who dominate the conversation, men who sit down before ladies are seated, and people who begin eating before everyone is seated or served.

And then there is the cacophony of cell phones.

“People often leave cell phones on and receive calls at the table or at cocktail parties,” Roddey said. “That is rude. I recently made a major speech, the State of the County address and one council member received two cell phone calls during my speech. He took both calls.”

Fox considers the improper use of cell phones a serious etiquette breach.

“Cell phones have gotten out of control,” she said. “There should absolutely be no cell phones or pagers during the meal. Some restaurants are banning them entirely.”

If a call is that urgent, let your fellow diners know it is anticipated and when it comes, leave the table and talk in the hallway, Fox advises.

“People become real self-absorbed when they get on a cell phone,” she said.

Free items also can bring out the worst in otherwise well-behaved people, said Susan Santa-Cruz, major event planner and owner of Susan Santa-Cruz Communications in Pittsburgh.

For Roddey’s Jan. 3 inauguration party that she organized, galvanized buckets with the logo “Step forward, go to work for your county,” were given out.

But they proved so popular that some people were grabbing two or more.

“People just loved them, and I anticipated that,” Santa-Cruz said. “We had volunteers staged at various places asking people to just take one. People sometimes don’t realize that if they take two, someone maybe 50 persons behind them in line will get none.

“Many times, they just aren’t thinking,” she said.

A grabby customer once tested Jim Rohr’s philosophy that the customer is always right.

“We invited him to a golf outing where box lunches were served,” Rohr, chief executive officer of PNC Financial Services Group, remembers. “He took his box and then he stuffed two or three extra sandwiches in his pocket. His behavior put him in question. He had already been approved for a loan, but we decided to look more closely at his accounting after that.”

“People get real funny about giveaways,” Santa-Cruz said. “No matter how much everyone has, whatever is being given away becomes very important to get.”

And sometimes, people try to walk away with things they aren’t meant to have, she said.

A lot of planning went into the formal sit-down dinner party for 1,250 people that Santa-Cruz organized for the opening of the Pittsburgh International Airport in 1992. In keeping with the theme, “Fasten your seat belt for a first-class ride,” the centerpieces were Lucite globes, etched with maps of the world. Jutting from them were sprays of orchids and an airplane whose wings bore the table number.

“They were huge,” Santa-Cruz said. “Clearly not something meant to be snatched from the table, but some well-heeled people did just that. We had to stop them on their way out.”

The containers belonged to the florist and had to be returned after the party.

“Those people didn’t mean to steal, they just displayed bad judgment and improper etiquette,” Santa-Cruz said.

Rude behavior, long cell phone conversations, drinking too much — all have been witnessed by Joe Kane, general manager at the Doubletree Hotel, Pittsburgh, a popular Downtown deal-making spot.

“Oh yes, I’ve seen them all,” said Kane, who offered advice on how to sidestep some common etiquette blunders. “It’s important to
understand who is in control of the situation and allow them to lead the conversation. Don’t give them your expertise. Listen to them.
People want to impress too much; that can be taboo.”

Drink in moderation at best, and only if the host offers alcohol, Kane said. “In the same vein, don’t overeat. If your host is having soup and salad, don’t order a seven-course dinner.”

Among tips Fox and others shared are:

* Be on time.

* Don’t gesticulate with cutlery. Jabbing your fork or knife in the air to make a point is rude and dangerous.

* Don’t kick off your shoes at the table; You might not be able to find them quickly.

* Don’t get carried away with family stories.

* Don’t insult the other person’s home team if he lives in a different city.

* Never make off-color comments in mixed company.

* Don’t ogle the opposite sex.

* Hotel rooms should be off limits. Business meetings should take place in business settings.

* Don’t tell ethnic or religious jokes.

* Use your knife, not your salad fork, to cut large, tough lettuce leaves.

* Don’t speak with your mouth full.

* Don’t put your elbows on the table.

* And, above all, listen to your mother!

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