When you least expect it, you might need to recognize - and correctly use - a shrimp fork, a strawberry fork or a pickle fork.
And if that happens when you're a student being wined and dined as part of a job interview, how at ease you are with your table setting can leave an impression on those deciding your future.
It's just one example of the tools students need in their toolboxes to complement their leadership skills and abilities, says Dr. Mitzi Norris, an associate professor and leadership teacher in the School of Health Related Professions.
“Leaders need certain knowledge and competencies, but to be the most effective, a well-rounded leader needs some social skills,” Norris said. “Students face high stakes during interviews, and they need to be comfortable when they are taken out to dinner. I do think you're at a disadvantage in some work situations if you don't adhere to social norms.”
Norris is quick to point out that she's not Miss Manners. But, she cares deeply about her students, and is passionate about helping them adopt good habits and networking skills that will serve them well during interviews and beyond.
She's spent years building that framework, from collecting interesting flatware at estate sales and flea markets to accumulating sets of china that include the trickier pieces that are a mystery to most students. “I do have a lot of dishes, and strawberry forks, ice cream forks, the things nobody knows about. But I don't have a hooded asparagus,” she joked.
Students can quickly learn they should work from the outside toward the inside when using flatware, their bread and salad plates, and their drink glasses, Norris said. As they dine, they should be pleasant to those around them and strive to make them comfortable, she said.
With her students, Norris has cited examples from “Pretty Woman,” the romantic comedy in which star Julia Roberts plays a prostitute who escorts a wealthy client to a high-power business dinner. Roberts' character first gets an urgent lesson in how to maneuver a table setting from the manager of the hotel where she's staying with her client, but ends up bungling the use of tongs to open snails.
She's also cited the excruciatingly correct table manners employed in the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” but says today's diners don't need to worry about such perfection. “Good manners are more about the individual making others feel comfortable around them,” she said. “If you put your elbows on the table, it doesn't offend me.”
Miles Backstrom, left, and Brooks Jackson go over the proper placement of plates and silverware during their meeting November 10 at the Norman C. Nelson Student Union.
In addition to her leadership teaching duties, Norris worked with young adults in the new Student Alumni Representatives (STARS) program under the auspices of the Office of Alumni Affairs. Those students are polishing communications and other skills as they interact with visiting alumni and donors in their role as ambassadors.
Norris' tips for dining, interacting with interviewers and other leaders, and being socially in tune include:
- If you find an olive pit in your mouth during a meal, discreetly pass it onto your fork from your mouth and place it on your plate. “Just be polite,” she emphasizes.
- Keep your right hand dry and free when you're in a setting where you will be shaking hands, such as a reception or cocktail hour. “You're not there to eat. You don't want to have to take the time to empty your hands,” Norris said.
- If you're given a name tag or badge to wear, place it on your upper right torso so that networkers will remember who you are. “If you're shaking hands, that's where people will look,” she said. The danger of wearing a name tag on a lanyard, she said, is that the tag often flips over, and flipped or not, it comes to rest at belly-button level.
And, always remember to thank your host or hostess. “Being considerate of others is what it's all about,” Norris said.
Norris explains the finer points of dining etiquette to students as part of honing the social skills they need for job interviews and networking.
Norris doesn't have a list of social grace pet peeves. But in her travels and professional activities, she does see individuals who somehow missed the boat on training that would help them be confident and successful.
“Several years ago, I went to a meeting downtown,” Norris remembered. “A young lady sitting next to me was obviously uncomfortable. In five minutes, I could tell her what she needed to know to be comfortable. And another time, I was at a sit-down dinner at a wedding reception. Someone who I know knows better took my bread plate.”
Norris also believes in having empathy for those who might appear to fall short of model manners. “I was eating with someone at a professional meeting, and she did things I wouldn't do. But, I thought about her background, and it was just fine.”
Bottom line, she says: A little training can go a long way.
“It's really in the context of leadership,” Norris said. “I want them to have the complete package. Being comfortable socially is in the package.”
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