Ruling Class

By Robert Sulivan, Vogue Magazine – 09/10/1999 – 12:00am


Ruling Class. Someone’s got to teach the software savvy not to lick the knife. Robert Sulivan discovers etiquette for the E-mail age.

It’s not that the entire generation of Silicon Valley millionaires is manner-free. It’s not that everybody who ever designed an E-mail software program, expanded his company quickly, went public, and then sold that company to Microsoft doesn’t know the difference between a dessert fork and a salad fork. It’s not that every woman who ever made her first million designing Java applications doesn’t know how to hold a cup of coffee when dining out with Japanese clients. To say that would be like saying that every hypertext program is the same or that all Web browsers are created equal. Still it is fair to say that most young computer-industry titans know a lot more about HTML protocol than formal dining protocol.

That’s where Sue Fox comes in. Sue Fox runs Etiquette Survival, an etiquette company she founded four years ago in Los Gatos, California. Fox is tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and to an East Coaster, anyway, seems very Californian and sunny.

The point is that she’s no Emily Post. She’s more of a Microsoftened Martha Stewart who works tirelessly to bring manners to Silicon Valley. “I think it all started in the seventies,” she recalled. “There was Apple, with Steve Jobs wearing jeans and all. And then everybody did it.” Now an entire generation of software-savvy people in their 20s and 30s has grown up thinking that formal means you use metal utensils instead of plastic with your Mexican food. “We had one who licked his knife,” Fox said politely.

The other day, in between training a few more instructors and polishing off her upcoming book, Etiquette for Dummies, she was very courteously stressing that her courses are, above all, fun! “We try to take all the stuffiness out of etiquette,” she said. She describes her typical client as wealthy, mid 30s, an employee of a computer or computer-related company. This is the person who would like to buy a $300 bottle of wine but doesn’t know which one. She helps demystify the rules of the table and social contact in general. Shemakes European knife handling as easy as downloading a file.

And where are the etiquette trouble spots? According to Fox, handshakes are perhaps the number-one problem. “Not a limp fish but not a bone crusher,” Fox says several times on an average day. “Lets see,” she continued, running down a quick list of common infractions. “OK, do you know how they serve romaine lettuce with the whole leaf in restaurants? Well, one woman, she put the whole leaf in her mouth…Double dipping in an olive oil plate is common. People looking at watches… And I would say, not listening is a big one. Also, family-style dining is difficult for some people. We tried a couple of family-style-dining classes, and it was very challenging. With family-style dining you’re supposed to take a little of one or two desserts, for example, and then pass it around. Well, two people took a whole dessert. One person took a big sorbet. It was incredible.”

Scott Murphy, 35, a technical-support engineer, took one of Fox’s courses “in case of one of those emergencies when you have to go out to a formal dinner. A lot of these guys, software-engineer types, they’re making 70 to 80 grand and they’re just getting out of college.” That you were allowed to cut your lettuce was news to Murphy, and liberating news at that. Also, he found the placement of utensils to be fascinating. “While you’re eating you’re supposed to put them at the top of your plate,” he said in wonder.

Before Fox got into the etiquette business, while working for Apple Computer, she made what she regards as her greatest single faux pas. It was at a large dinner table, which, it should be noted was not formally set, and she accidentally used the bread plate intended for the gentleman seated next to her. She doesn’t wake up at night in a cold sweat thinking about this incident or anything, but she remembers: “It stayed with me.” After she left Apple, she started an etiquette course for children, but she noticed that the adults were asking a lot of questions. The philosophy Fox teaches now is a combination of Catholic school training and a passion for Buddhism, particularly the etiquette-related Buddhist concept of mindfulness. “Manners are about pacing your life, about respecting others, and self-respect. It’s about little kindnesses.

In fact, Fox believes that manners are on their way back, in both Silicon Valley and possibly the country. Partly this is because computer companies are more competitive now and need that extra polish to attract clients, and partly because kids with money are getting more mature and want to stay in for dinner parties instead of going out for pizza. “I don’t know what it is,” she says. “You’ve seen the movie Titanic. You’ve seen The Age of Innocence. I think the sixties with the hippies and then the eighties, with the me-me-me-will, I think now there is this renaissance.”

She is optimistic, that is, except when it comes to the cell phone; the cell phone is, to her, a step back toward the Dark Ages. “We’ve gotten out of control with them,” she says. “You shouldn’t even bring it to a restaurant. We don’t realize how rude they are. Unless it’s an emergency. Or unless you have a baby-sitter.” She adds, I don’t know if we can ever go back.”

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