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

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

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.

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."

Our soup bowls are cleared and plates of Mediterranean Chicken arrive. "This is a beautiful entrée," Davis says, but I can sense that the appearance of bone-in meat has set off a wave of panic for many of us. Davis demonstrates the Continental-style approach to wielding eating utensils, in which the knife is held in the right hand and the fork in the left to avoid the tedious hand-switching of the American style. Davis pierces the chicken and cuts away from herself. "No sawing," she says, "down and away." She skewers the piece with her fork, tines down, and moves it to her mouth.

To us died-in-the-wool American-style diners, once familiar utensils now make us look like first-time chopstick users. I watch others struggle to hold the fork "upside down" and repeatedly catch myself unconsciously switching my fork back to my right hand. I feel a bit like I should be sent back to the kids' table with a high chair and a sippy cup.

I don't fare much better with our dessert course, a towering, berry-topped "chocolate cathedral." As I pinch the structure between my fork and spoon and carefully tip it over, a blueberry rolls off my plate and comes to rest in the no-man's territory in the middle of our table. But Davis has advised us that if you're not the sort of person to carry a crumber—I wouldn't be surprised if she had one tucked into her clutch—to just leave any reckless bits where they lie. "Food is meant to be enjoyed," she says.

Davis takes questions from the group: Is it ever okay to eat with your hands? (Yes for burgers and fries, which are showing up more often at upscale restaurants, but if you have a choice, select a dish eaten with utensils as you'll likely be shaking hands after the meal.) Is it more polite to finish everything on your plate, or leave a few bites? (In more formal settings, it's best to leave a few bites, to reflect your host's generosity.) One poor woman with short stature and a large chest says she has trouble fitting into booths and wonders if it's okay to request a table instead. Unfortunately, Davis says, the host could perceive your request as rude, and she recommends putting up with the discomfort.

Then Davis explains that if you'd like to get up to use the restroom—never apply lipstick at the table, ladies—you should cross your utensils in the middle of your plate, leave your seat from the right side, and place your napkin on your chair. When you are finished with your meal, place both pieces of silverware in the 4 o'clock position. Our white-gloved waiter recognizes the cue, but I'd imagine that a fair number of servers—and diners—aren't as well informed.

The best way to avoid a tussle over the check, Davis says, is for the host to catch the server beforehand and arrange the appropriate delivery. And don't ask for a doggie bag, she adds, unless the host does. As soon as the host has taken her napkin off her lap and set it before her, it's a signal that the meal is over. And, Davis says, that a handwritten thank-you note—not an email or text message—is in order.  

Upcoming Classes

Business Etiquette Class

October 1, 11 a.m.St. Paul Hotel, 651.228.3860$55 per person

Children's Etiquette Luncheon

October 3, 10 a.m.St. Paul Hotel, 651.228.3860

$45 per child

University Alumni Association Etiquette Dinner

October 20, 5:30 p.m.McNamara Alumni Center, 612.625.9180

$20 students, $30 alumni association members, $35 general public

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St. Paul Hotel

350 Market St.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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