Pass the Etiquette, Please

Pass the Etiquette, Please
Barbara Bruin explains the difference between forks during an Etiquette Class at Kellogg Ranch.
Bruin demonstrates the correct way to eat soup, which is always useful to know.

An excellent education and degree may land a job interview with the right company, but using a dessert fork for salad during a lunch meeting with a potential boss could spoil a first impression.

While professional skills and experience are essential to career success, knowing proper business etiquette can be just as crucial, according to Cal Poly Pomona hospitality management professors Ben Dewald and Barbara Jean Bruin.

“CEOs are often measuring etiquette behavior when someone is invited to a business reception,” says Bruin. “They want to see if you know how to act, what to do, and even whether you know how to eat soup properly.”

(The proper way to eat soup is to push the spoon away, not toward you, in your bowl.)

Being aware of minute details, such as avoiding broccoli that often gets caught between teeth, to the frequently overlooked faux pas of forgetting to turn off a cell phone during a business meeting, could make a difference with employers.

The decline in manners is often linked to Americans' fast-paced lifestyles. As a result, teaching the basics of politeness is often not a priority for many families today.

“Kids learn to turn on a computer when they're two years old now, but they don't know how to use a cloth napkin or where to place their silverware. Families aren't eating around a table together unless it is for Thanksgiving,” says Dewald, associate professor and director of food and beverage for the university's student-run restaurant.

Each year, the Collins School of Hospitality Management partners with Aramark to offer one-day seminars to more than 100 students on the art of business etiquette. While attending a cocktail party and roundtable dinner, students learn the essentials: from what to wear (black or navy suits are recommended), to how to introduce themselves and exchange business cards, to what to order (avoid messy items such as tomatoes or ribs) and how to eat using the proper dining utensils.

“Providing our students these skills helps them stay ahead of the crowd,” says Dewald. “Once they're comfortable in a business situation, it makes everything else easier.”

Dewald and Bruin find ways of incorporating etiquette skills into their ongoing hospitality courses. In addition, both have taught recent workshops on campus for more than 150 Chaffey College and Pasadena City College students.

Dewald explains how the use of technology, such as cell phones, blackberries, mp3 players and e-mail, plays a role in teaching etiquette.

“If you are invited to an event by e-mail, then you can send a thank-you note by e-mail; but if you are invited formally, you should respond formally,” says Dewald, who explains that one of the most important, yet easily forgotten, aspects of business etiquette is to send a thank-you letter after an interview.

Issues such as cultural distinctions, as well as the difference between social and business etiquette, are often discussed in their workshops.

“As international business expands, students need to know that in Asian countries you bring gifts to a luncheon, you eat and then you talk business after the meal, whereas Americans talk business during the meal,” says Dewald.

Also, students may learn that although it may be acceptable for a man to open a door or pull out chair for a woman in a social situation, it may be frowned upon in a business environment where men and women are considered as equals.

The various business etiquette tips can put some people into a panic, but “just remember,” cautions Bruin, “always err on the conservative side and take your cue from the host. When in doubt, don't.”