Eat, drink and be wary
Etiquette expert examines the art of the mealtime interview
Tall, slim and sandy-haired, Anthony P. Cawdron is partial to perfectly tailored suits and silk pocket-handkerchiefs. He possesses a veddy British wit. His accent has softened slightly in 15 years of living in America.
He has spent six of those years at Purdue University, where Cawdron plans dinners and events at the university's presidential residence. On one such occasion, he'd planned a formal dinner with his usual eye for detail, making sure the courses flowed seamlessly and the silver and china gleamed.
But then Cawdron's staff reported something that shocked the most jaded among them. Even Cawdron - who has witnessed distinguished guests chucking toothpicks on the floor like barroom peanuts and using knife handles to clean out their ears - was appalled. In the midst of the meal, as guests murmured appreciatively over good wine, one man suddenly grabbed a fistful of the creamy linen tablecloth and used it to blow his nose. Loudly.
Ever the gentleman, Cawdron took it in stride. After all, the only thing worse than having bad manners is letting the guest know how bad his manners are. So he continued to make sure the wine glasses remained full, the service remained seamless and the guests - even the nose-blowing guy - remained content.
If not to the manor born, Cawdron could take excellent care of someone who is. An Air Force brat, he traveled extensively with his family as a child. The early exposure to travel, dining and hotels prompted him to pursue a hospitality career.
Cawdron proceeded to build a resume that included turns as an assistant butler at Winston Churchill's former birthplace, a restaurant manager and a faculty member at a Swiss hotel school. As head butler at London's Sutton Place, he worked with several members of the Royal Family, including the Queen, Prince Charles, the late Princess Diana and the late Queen Mother.
Through a faculty exchange program with Iowa State, he wound up in the land of corn and cattle in 1990. After the exchange ended, he became event coordinator at ISU's president's residence. When ISU president Martin Jischke was hired to helm Purdue, he and his wife Patty asked Cawdron to come with them.
Today, in addition to his event-planning duties, he instructs hundreds of Purdue students each year on the intricacies of proper service and business etiquette. Occasionally he takes his lecture on the road.
Which is why he's at North Dakota State University's Alumni Center, teaching students the art of the business handshake and which wine glass to use. Because - in this post-charm school era - there aren't that many opportunities to learn business etiquette. Cawdron keeps the proceedings light with his arsenal of amusing stories and Old World charm. It helps break the tension of getting through a meal that could make Miss Manners fumble: hard rolls, French onion soup capped by a stubborn slab of melted cheese, chicken Alfredo atop slippery noodles, runaway peas and a dense wedge of cheesecake.
But by meal's end, Cawdron's mission is accomplished. The students have been drilled in everything from appropriate dinner conversation to the art of genteelly cutting cherry tomatoes. They leave the dinner armed with a pocket-sized etiquette book, the confidence to face their next business dinner head-on and a minimum of soup stains on their shirts and ties.
Jolly good show.
Cultivate a handshake that's firm, not bone crushing, timid or lingering. "Gentlemen: Don't have one handshake for men and another handshake for women. That's actually sexist. Have a good handshake for everyone."
- Do not stick your hands in your pockets. That gesture says: "I'm not interested in meeting anyone."
- Americans are so obsessed with personal space that we'll often stand too far apart when shaking hands. As a result, we may wind up grabbing each other's fingers - "which feels strange," Cawdron says. Step toward each other for the handshake, then step apart to visit.
- Beverage napkins serve double-duty: They protect your host's furniture when you set down a drink, and they allow you to discreetly blot sweaty palms before shaking someone's hand.
The drink takes the man
- When moving from reception area to dining room, leave behind whatever drink you were sipping. Otherwise, "People will think you need that drink to get through the evening."
- Wait to drink until everyone has been served at your table - unless you're sipping water.
- A series of wines may be served throughout a formal meal. The smaller glass, located closest to you, is for white wines, which go with the earlier courses of the meal. The larger wine glass will hold red wine. If servers are offering refills, don't try to drain each glass. "If halfway through the meal, yours is the only voice you can hear in the room, this is your cue to stop drinking."
Hard to handle
- If an appetizer looks difficult to eat, politely decline.
- Approach salads - with oversized greens, oozy cherry tomatoes and pesky croutons - with caution. If salad greens aren't torn into bite-sized pieces, it's perfectly acceptable to cut them with your entree knife.
- Make educated decisions when ordering foods during an interview meal. You don't want to spend more energy on de-boning a whole broiled fish than on impressing your host.
- Round foods such as peas and berries are notoriously difficult to eat. You'll find yourself chasing that last blueberry around the plate, hoping to nudge it onto the fork with your finger when no one is looking. Instead, either use your spoon to help move the uncooperative food onto your fork or to gently spear it with a fork while holding it still with your spoon.
When in Rome...
- If you're stumped over which fork to use or what to do with your napkin, discreetly watch the host.
- It can be embarrassing to order a five-course meal, only to learn everyone else is ordering salad. If you have to order first, ask open-ended questions to gauge what your host typically eats.
- Know the etiquette rules of different cultures. In Asian countries, it's considered a compliment to the chef to slurp your soup. In France, you won't get a bread plate, so you're expected to rest your roll on the paper-covered tablecloth.
- Worried you'll sip out of your prospective employer's water glass? Think "BMW." B stands for your bread plate on the left, M represents the main plate and W symbolizes your water glass on the right.
- When going through a buffet line or serving yourself family-style, eat everything you've selected. "Particularly if you travel in countries where food is considered to be a rarity or luxury, and a large percentage of the population doesn't have enough food to eat, it is considered very bad manners to be seen wasting food."
- As soon as everyone is seated, place napkin, still folded in half, on lap. The open side should face you, so you can use the inside of the napkin.
- Eat bread by breaking off bite-sized pieces and buttering each individual piece at a time. Always spoon soup away from you. Rather than hunching over the soup bowl to avoid tie splashing, sit up straight, fill the bowl of your spoon sparingly and bring the soup carefully to your mouth.
- Thank servers for doing something for you. Otherwise, when you want something later in the meal, they'll ignore you.
- Cawdron's rule for disposing of pits, gristle and other things you don't want to swallow: "The way it went in is the way it comes out." That means removing it with your fork and placing it on the side of the plate or beneath a garnish. If eating olives by hand, you may discreetly remove the pit with your cupped hand. Never spit food into your napkin.
- When making conversation, avoid the usual hot-button topics: politics, sex, religion, money. And steer away from health, lest you invite a hypochondriac to fire off a litany of complaints. Cawdron advises sticking to safe topics - travel, weather, area of study. "I know it's boring, I know it's a cliche, but at least it's a good start."
- After the meal, your napkin should remain folded in half and look relatively clean. "If it's wearing more makeup than you, if it's concealing large amounts of gristle, mashed potato and chewing gum or it looks like you just washed the car with it, that's not the impression you want to leave."
You are how you eat
- When faced by a lot of silverware, start at the outside and work in with each course.
- There are two acceptable styles of dining: American or European. The European style consists of keeping the fork in your left hand as you cut, assemble and eat each piece. The knife remains in your right hand and may be (subtly) used to move food onto the fork. Legend has it the European style was created so both hands were visible at all times, rather than reaching under the table for daggers or poison.
- "Silverware is one of the things that people do use to make a judgment about you and the table manners you have," Cawdron says. He tells of an American spy who parachuted into France during World War II. Although the spy was dressed as a Frenchman and spoke perfect French, Germans nabbed him when they saw how he gripped his utensils.
- When finished, place knife and fork together at about the 4:20 and 5:25 positions on the plate, with the knife on the right side and fork tines facing up.
- Always taste your food before seasoning it. Some large corporations will even cull out job candidates who salt before tasting. "They basically say you're not analyzing the situation before you make a decision."
- Likewise, some interviewers will judge how you open your sugar packet. "If you tear off the sugar top completely," Cawdron says, "you won't get the next interview." Leave the empty packet on your cup saucer or your bread plate.
-- T. Swift