The tiny plate debacle

“The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.”  -Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and I, we have a lot in common.

Let me set the scene: formal dinner, Hart House, Great Hall, white linens, gleaming silver ware, and tiny plates. Me in camel-coloured new dress, sweaty palms, and whose last use for formal table etiquette was 7th grade home-economics class. Bread basket is placed on the table by the dapper waiter, everyone at the table proceeds to take a piece of bread in turn and set it on the proper tiny plate to their left, except for me, who places the bread ever so gingerly on the tiny plate to my right. Confusion ensues as the proceeding bread takers are forced to place their bread on the tiny plate to their right. I am quickly found out to be the perpetrator of the offence. I apologize and hoped that this would be the last of my slips in table etiquette for the night.

I was wrong. Soon after the first lapse in table etiquette, as I was engaging in a lovely conversation with the gentleman next to me, I began to swirl what I thought was my bread in the little pool of olive oil on the tiny plate to my right. It occurred to me at that moment, that I had been swirling and eating my neighbour’s bread. It was an honest mistake that seemed to amuse those at my table. Yet, I left the event feeling very lacking in my knowledge of proper dinner etiquette.

I was told by a woman at this event that the Faculty Club offers etiquette lesson, so I contacted Leanne Pepper. Leanne is a certified Etiquette Instructor and Protocol Consultant and the General Manager of the Faculty Club. When I met with Leanne for a crash course in etiquette, I told her about the tiny plate debacle. My mind was set at ease when she informed me that I was not alone. Formal table and social etiquette is an area of learning in which most people find themselves lacking. Leanne regaled me with dinner etiquette horror stories that made the theft of my neighbour’s bread appear to be the slightest of missteps.

The sheer volume of knowledge Leanne imparted on me is far too vast to detail in this post, so I will try to condense what I feel to be the most important lessons I learnt today.

1. Make a circle with your thumb and index finger, while keeping your other fingers together. Now hold them up in front of you and you should see a “b” and a “d”…b is for bread and butter on your left and d is for drinks on your right. If only I had met Leanne early!!!
2. Work in from the outside when using utensils.
3. A dinner roll is not a sandwich it is to be eaten with dinner! Tear a small piece off and butter that piece with your butter knife ONLY and then eat it with your hands and not your fork.
4. Don’t have your cell phone on during dinner! If you must use it, excuse yourself and leave the table discreetly. If you need to keep your cell phone on then explain to your fellow diners that you might be receiving a call because _________ and apologize for deviating proper protocol (but in a nicer way).
5. Don’t be afraid to engage in small talk at an event. Work your way into the centre of the room because the most important people are usually at the centre.

Here’s a list Leanne gave me off the top dining don’ts: don’t overload your plate, don’t overload your fork, don’t mop your face with a napkin, don’t spread your elbow while cutting meat, don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t saw your meat, don’t smack your lips, don’t push your plate away from you when you’re finished, don’t gesture with your utensils, and finally, don’t eat your neighbours bread! That’s right: I made the top ten!

Leanne also demonstrated the continental style of using utensils. I would love to share this with you, however it is one of those things that must be seen to be understood.

Some people may think that etiquette is a bygone art. Yet, my experience with the tiny plate debacle and my conversation with Leanne have proven to me that this is a skill that students should be learning. As Leanne noted, so many interviews and events are held over a table, that improper etiquette can cost you a job, or sometimes entrance into a program of study. This isn’t about being fancy; it’s about being aware of your surroundings and being gracious to those around you…a.k.a. people skills!

I enjoyed my meeting with Leanne and I can’t wait to have a full session with her. You can book appointments with Leanne Pepper in individual or group lessons. Her email address is Leanne.pepper@utoronto.ca The lessons are free, but you are required to pay for your meal, which is fine with me…I hear the food at the Faculty Club is delish!

Although I never used to think about table etiquette, I find myself increasingly encountering situations where important people are watching me eat. Since I want to continue eating with important people, etiquette lessons can give me another skill I can put in my university toolkit. If we are to succeed in school and beyond, personal connections are vital. Consider this a new skill to ingratiate yourself to all those you might come into contact with during your studies. Who knows, you just might impress the right person!

Lori

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