Manners 101: Etiquette queen Angelyn Davis gives it to us straight

Should we be sent back to the kids' table with a sippy cup?

The St. Paul Hotel's Business Etiquette class hadn't even started and I'd already committed my first faux pas. I realized it—or rather, it was pointed out to me—as I introduced myself to our instructor, Angelyn Davis, owner of the consultancy Etiquette, Et Cetera. Davis, who is something of a modern-day Emily Post, handled my foible with the utmost discretion. Shaking my hand, she leaned forward and gently informed me that I'd placed my name tag on the wrong lapel.

Looking around to see if anyone else had noticed, I repositioned the sticker from left to right and took a seat at one of the banquet tables. Davis rang a little silver dinner bell and began her introduction. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression," she said. And I was pretty sure I hadn't made a good one.

I don't think of myself as a particularly ill-mannered rube—I won't be pulling a Wilson, a Williams, or a West anytime soon—but for someone who eats out for a living, my tableside comportment is, frankly, a bit lacking. I have a penchant for clutching my fork in a Cro-Magnon death grip and leaning my elbows on the table, acts I typically try to rationalize as the inevitable byproduct of my unbridled enthusiasm for all things edible.

What's the most graceful way to tackle the "chocolate cathedral"? Angelyn Davis will show you.
Jana Freiband
What's the most graceful way to tackle the "chocolate cathedral"? Angelyn Davis will show you.

But I have discovered the hard way that manners do matter. Take the Great Riverview Theater Embarrassment of 2005, for example, in which I was chomping my popcorn so loudly—during the rowdy movie scene in Cinema Paradiso, ironically—that the woman behind me tapped my shoulder and requested that I chew with my mouth closed. Oops.

Davis, sitting at her own mini-table at the front of the room and dressed in a Jackie O.-style blush-pink suit, appears utterly incapable of such transgressions. After a career in public and human relations, Davis launched her own business in 2006 and now hosts etiquette luncheons at the St. Paul Hotel several times a year (there are two scheduled this week and more planned for early 2010). She began by teaching children's courses but quickly expanded her client base. "When parents were picking up the children from classes, they'd ask, 'Do you ever do this for people my age?'" she says. Her adult Business Etiquette classes now attract all sorts, including recent graduates, job seekers, salespeople, small-business owners, corporate executives, and event planners.

Davis says she's seen demand for her classes multiply in the last few years, something she attributes to the increasing globalization of the economy, which is spurring workers to supplement their technical skills with social savvy. But the benefits of good manners stretch beyond the professional world. "The whole point of etiquette is to make interactions more appropriate, thoughtful, and respectful—and make people more comfortable," Davis says.

I, for one, am feeling a bit ill at ease during Davis's primer on making introductions as I realize that my knowledge of the subject has been derived mainly from the party scene in Bridget Jones's Diary. Traditionally, Davis says, people have learned manners at home, practicing dining etiquette as well as conversation skills. But these days, she says, family mealtimes, are "catch-as-catch-can." For many of us, table etiquette wasn't part of our junior- high home ec curriculum, and it seems a little late to earn another Boy or Girl Scout badge.

Unfazed by her students' knowledge gaps, the perfectly poised Davis scoots her chair up to demonstrate how to place your body one hand-length away from the table. She sets her napkin in her lap, folded side closest to her torso, as bowls of tomato-basil bisque are served. "Which spoon are we using?" Davis asks, and the rest of us answer by picking up our soup spoons. "Dip away from yourself so you don't splash," she says. "And sip, don't slurp."

While we're eating, Davis passes along more tips. Use the napkin in the bread basket to cover the loaf as you twist off a slice. Pass from left to right, and always pass the salt and pepper together. Hold stemware with your fingertips. Remember the place-setting acronym BMW, or bread, meal, water, to keep from embarrassing yourself by drinking out of someone else's glass.

Of course, one is also expected to partake in dinner-table conversation, in addition to minding one's meal. "Take small bites so you're able to respond to a question quickly," Davis advises. She also suggests avoiding controversial topics in favor of generalities and compliments. No politics. No religion. No inquiries about your boss's mistress. Instead, Davis offers, "How about that tomato-basil bisque?" as she finishes off her bowl. I look to Davis to see where she has set her spoon before also resting mine in the 4 o'clock position.

And what if you don't like the meal you're served? Davis suggests faking it—pushing your food around the plate to give the appearance that you're eating. If your host poses a direct inquiry—"Did you not enjoy your soup?"—Davis recommends a tactful dodge: "I was so engaged in our conversation," she says, "I didn't do it justice."

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