Here is how the politediner handles her dinner napkin. 

She waits for her host to put his napkin in his lap before she puts hers in her own. Open corners facing the table. That napkin has two uses and two uses only, and she knows both: Wiping her mouth and hands and protecting her clothing. She would never use it as a food receptacle, even if she had a gnarly bit of gristle in her mouth. (Artfully cupped hand, people.) She would never use it to wipe her nose. If she needed to excuse herself, she would place her napkin on her chair. When she was finished, she would set it to the left of her plate.

Not on her plate. Heavens.

C’mon, be honest: You didn’t know all that. The only person I can think of who would is Arden Clise, the Emily Post of Seattle, who schools people on modern manners in a 90-minute class she holds monthly called Business Savvy: Essential Skills for Professional Success. 

It used to be called Etiquette Essentials for Professional Success, but it turned out the word etiquette makes the younger folk twitchy. Instills a sense of worry, like they’re going to be corrected. The new name instills a sense of excitement, like they’re going to be promoted.

I get that, the idea of etiquette having always repelled me. I enrolled out of sheer perversity. Don’t misunderstand: I’m all for civility, the wellspring of manners that make sense, like don’t eat directly off the buffet platter, or do give the guest the seat with the view. I don’t call this manners. It’s kindness.

But don’t put your elbows on the table? What’s that about? To my mind, a group of guests whose elbows rest comfortably on a table signals social ease and conversational engagement. To my mind, even if those elbows defy the rules that organize our social interactions—rules like use the fork on the outside first; or bread plate to the left of your place setting, drink to the right—they signify something better.

As I sat in the penthouse suite of the grand old Sorrento Hotel scribbling Clise’s little wisdoms—which did not, to her credit, include any elbow instruction—I began to grasp a reason for all these arbitrary regulations: They preserve something, if not as essential as kindness, at least twice as practical—freedom to not be genuinely invested in every encounter. Manners enable a very useful superficiality. 

Imagine a world where we’d have to decide how to line up the forks every time. Worse, imagine a world where we had
to muster an authentic emotional connection every time, for every comer. Where we couldn’t euphemize around social buzzkills like alcoholism (“Never ask ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ ” Clise tsks) or unemployment (“‘How do you spend your time?’ is a much better question than ‘What do you do?’ ”). Where we couldn’t make use of the phrase every cocktail party mingler knows is a lie but routinely utters and accepts with equal equanimity (“It’s been lovely chatting with you, but I see I need to refresh my drink”), or the host’s thinly veiled price-range cue (“This restaurant does such a great job with chicken!”). Where we couldn’t deploy the all-purpose “How are you?” to mean not “How are you?”—how quaint!—but something more like, “Well, there you are.” 

Etiquette, I was beginning to see, is a pretty bit of formal choreography marked by arm’s-length engagement. To continue that metaphor, business etiquette is also a dance—only a competitive one. The proper right-lapel placement for name tags, for instance, is rooted in pure face-saving artifice: that when the name-tagged person extends his right hand in a handshake you get direct line of sight to his name. This is particularly useful in the case of the person you’ve met before, whose name you absolutely ought to know—and you now must introduce to someone else. If this social horror show should unfold sans name tag—well Bub, in that case authenticity’s all you got. “I’m sorry, will you remind me of your name?” is the solution Clise calls least deadly of a bunch of bad alternatives. 

This is an unusually head-on piece of etiquette that I favor in theory—but can’t imagine actually doing. Much too genuine. It’s like the two-handed handshake—which even when sincere can come across as not, and which Clise therefore advises against. Business etiquette is no place for genuine fellow feeling. It’s a place for advancing one’s own interests. It’s the marketing campaign one stages for oneself.

So our class learned never to ask for a doggy bag at a business dinner and to try to produce a favorable comment when handed a business card (“What a great-looking logo!”). And, when making introductions, to present the lower-authority person to the higher-authority person (“Scary Boss, meet Quivering Intern”); and, when shaking hands, to avoid the limp pump (says passive) or the fingertip grab (says girly).

The ideal handshake, Clise taught, is the firm-but-not-bone-crushing two- to three-pump event, where both parties go in for web-to-web penetration. (Not as dreamy as it sounds, this just means the bases of fingers should touch.) The handshake, Clise explained, dates from medieval times when our forebears patted strangers for weapons, then shook to make sure none were concealed. Seems we moderns didn’t invent apparent friendliness rooted in self-interest. We can only perfect it.

 

Published: August 2013