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A crash course in power-dining etiquette

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Had she been invited, Miss Manners would have beamed over the five-course dinner and etiquette crash course thrown Tuesday by the University of Colorado’s Career Services department.

“I call it power dining because people in the upper echelons of companies are very aware of etiquette,” said Judy Hlawatsch, the veteran event organizer at Career Services. “Not being properly educated in these kinds of table rules and courtesies can make or break a situation.”

Those situations range from job interviews to sales calls to networking events, she said.

And fumbling over the formalities — especially when it involves eating — can rob otherwise confident people in a curious sheepishness.

So, in the privacy of a back room at the University Memorial Center, more than 100 students and grads turned out to get pointers and practice.

“I’ve eaten dorm food for a while now, and a five-course dinner sounded good,” said CU freshman Aaron Bradley, 18. “But I also attended because I wanted to start eating on my own without watching other people.”

Without coaching, the cloth napkin can transform into a faux paux flag, Hlawatsch said.

Using it to blow your nose, clean silverware or spit out food represent absolute no-nos, she said.

However, for those in the know, the napkin serves a greater purpose than dabbling the corners of one’s mouth.

Sophisticated diners use napkins as a communication tool.

When draped across the back of the chair or across the seat, it holds the place.

When folded and set to the left of the plate, it indicates that the diner has finished the meal.

“Never tuck your napkin into your collar unless, maybe, you’re eating fried chicken,” Hlawatsch said.

However, she continued, the savvy business person will avoid such finger foods or otherwise messy entrees such as spaghetti when dining to impress.

Tips to this end also include keeping elbows off the table, ordering nonalcoholic beverages, passing the salt and pepper together and eating soup without slurping.

When wait staff served the minestrone soup, Hlawatsch paused to demonstrate the finer points — namely, dipping the soup spoon in the cup or bowl side closest to the table edge, scooping away, and then leaning in ever so slightly before bringing the spoon to the lips.

Besides helping the attendees navigate critical when and how to properly eat soup, the primer aimed to demystify silverware, stemware and china arrangements.

“If you go to the White House or some other state dinner, you could have 25 piece of silver before you,” Hlawatsch said.

But the battery of utensils need not cow the inexperienced formal diner, she continued.

After explaining potential layout and functions with a brief overhead presentation, she concluded with some horse sense — work from the outside in.

After finishing each course, leave the utensils, tines up, with the tips at 10 o’clock and the ends at 4 o’clock.

For the past three years, CU alum Kurt Huffman, 39, has attended the three-hour class.

“Once, when I was working in Russia for Lockheed-Martin, I was the guest of honor, and they gave me the fish head out of the soup. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to eat it or not. But I keep coming to this classed to review the basics,” Huffman said.

Taking the class a step further by studying cross-cultural customs that could make or break a business opportunity pays, according to big wigs at IBM and Seagate.

With more than 60 percent of its business performed in 160-plus countries outside of the U.S., IBM invested in an intranet Web site called “Going Global” to give employees a cheat sheet on critical rules to follow.

“When you go to Canada, you definitely have to talk hockey. When you got Japan, you better be able to do a little karaoke on the side,” according to Gil Saenz, IBM’s vice president of worldwide software and fulfillment delivery.

Just making an attempt to fit in with cultural norms can make a difference on the kind of eye cast on a business person in a foreign land, he said.

Nevertheless, some rules of thumb often represent good taste worldwide, according to Julian Eaves, director of strategic staff in the U.S. at Seagate.

“We’re quite a melting pot here at Seagate in Longmont. We have people from many different countries where etiquette can differ greatly. But smoking during an interview is an absolute taboo. If you’re talking about a knockout punch, that would be it,” he said.

Drinking, swearing or telling inappropriate jokes also nix a candidate from consideration, he said.

For more information, visit http://international.monster.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mailat pmellskog@times-call.com.