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Tips From an Etiquette Guru: Eat Neat and Don't Lick the Wine Cork

May 12, 1996|MARTHA GROVES

The Harvard MBA was impeccably attired and had credentials to match. When he entered the interview room to face a panel of prospective employers, he also had a little something extra: a fat wad of pink bubble gum in his mouth.

He didn't get the job.

From the board room to the dining room, "common sense has become an uncommon commodity," etiquette consultant Shirley Willey told a roomful of MBA candidates from UC Davis' Graduate School of Management. This is unfortunate, she noted, at a time when job hopefuls are vying for a shrinking number of high-quality management positions.

During a recent four-hour workshop on business etiquette, held in the ballroom of Sacramento's Hyatt Regency Hotel, more than 100 of these students and their guests listened as Willey (pronounced Why-lee) traced the history of good manners, from Louis XIV to Emily Post and Letitia Baldrige.

Willey, the founder of Etiquette & Co. in nearby Carmichael, gave tips on tipping and warned against sending thank-you notes by e-mail. Most important, she said, avoid ordering foods that can "flip, slip or drip." Cherry tomato in the salad? Major squirt alert. Just leave it on the plate. But do order decisively, to demonstrate decision-making ability.

What if the chief executive with whom you're interviewing or negotiating at lunch has a piece of lettuce caught between her teeth? Hold a napkin up to your own mouth and swish your tongue across your teeth, hoping she'll get the message. If that fails, just come right out and tell her, subtly. She'd rather know, Willey suggested, than discover it on her own later by looking in her rear-view mirror.

What if you splatter vinaigrette on a chief financial officer's Italian silk tie? Offer to have it cleaned. If he refuses, emphasize that you'd really like to pick it up at 10 the next morning and have the spot removed. If he still declines, let it drop--but send a note of apology, with a check for $10 to cover dry-cleaning expenses.

Those attending the workshop were hardly spring pups and presumably knew at the very least that the bread plate is to the upper left of a place setting, whereas the water and wine glasses are at the upper right. Participants, who self-consciously nibbled their way through a four-course dinner as Willey table-hopped, included working professionals, some in their 40s and 50s, who are studying nights and weekends to earn their MBAs.

Charles Abernethy, a financial manager for defense and aerospace company Aerojet, decided to participate because friends and colleagues had told him, "I have a little bit of an edge."

He also realized that with the downturn in the defense market, "there's a good likelihood that I'd have to change careers," said Abernethy, 43.

One key to success in today's business world, Willey noted, is realizing that unlike old-fashioned social etiquette, business etiquette is based on neutrality. "Men no longer have to open doors for women," she said. "Men and women open doors for each other."

The wisest course is always to show respect for age, deference for rank and courtesy for all.

After preaching such etiquette gospel to more than 7,000 people since 1990, Willey said, she still hears some surprising things. One executive told her about the young employee he was considering for a promotion--until she licked the knife she had used to butter a croissant. One young man asked Willey the proper way to lick a wine cork. Another used his thumb to shove the last few grains of rice onto his fork. Willey herself observed a man on a Lake Tahoe tourist boat flossing his teeth at the table.

"Seventy-five percent of business today is negotiated around food," she said. "It is a fiercely competitive and, yes, highly judgmental world."

Speaking of which, she mentioned that auto titan Henry Ford never hired anyone who salted food before tasting it, figuring that such folks were too impulsive to gather all pertinent information before making decisions.

Willey presented 166 seminars last year alone, trying to teach disadvantaged teens, MBA students and military personnel making the transition to civilian pursuits how to "put their best fork forward."

Remember, she told her rapt audience, "good manners don't stand out, but bad manners do."

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