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Business Etiquette - Table Manners

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



In the old books of etiquette in the chapter on table manners the authors used to state that it was not polite to butter your bread with your thumb, to rub your greasy fingers on the bread you were about to eat, or to rise from the table with a toothpick in your mouth like a bird that is about to build her nest.

There are in the United States nearly five million people who can neither read nor write. We have no statistics but we venture to say there are as many who eat with their knives. There are people among us—and they are not all immigrants in the slum districts or Negroes in the poorer sections of the South—who do not know what a napkin is, who think the proper way to eat an egg is to hold it in the hand like a piece of candy, and bite it, the egg having previously been fried on both sides until it is as stiff and as hard as a piece of bristol board, who would not recognize a salad if they saw one, and who have never heard of after-dinner coffee.

Very few of them are people of wealth, but an astonishing number of successful business men were born into such conditions. They had no training in how to handle a knife and fork and they probably never read a book of etiquette, but they had one faculty, which is highly developed in nearly every person who lifts himself above the crowd, and that is observation.

In addition to this a young man is very fortunate, especially if his way of life is cast among people whose manners are different from those to which he has been accustomed, if he has a friend whom he can consult, not only about table manners but about matters of graver import as well. And he should not be embarrassed to ask questions. The disgrace, if disgrace it could be called, lies only in ignorance.

A number of years ago a young man who was the prospective heir to a fortune—this charming story is in Charles Dickens's wonderful novel, "Great Expectations"—went up to London for the express purpose of learning to be a gentle-man. It fell about that almost as soon as he arrived he was thrown into the company of a delightfulyouth who had already attained the minor graces of polite society. Very much in earnest about what he had set out to do, and blessed besides with a goodish bit of common sense, he explained his situation to Herbert, for that was the other boy's name, mentioned the fact that he had been brought up by a blacksmith in a country place, that he knew practically nothing of the ways of politeness, and that he would take it as a great kindness if Herbert would give him a hint whenever he saw him at a loss or going wrong.

" With pleasure,' said he, 'though I venture to prophesy that you'll want very few hints.' "

They went in to dinner together, a regular feast of a dinner it seemed to the ex-blacksmith's apprentice, and after a while began to talk about the benefactress who, they believed, had made it possible.

"Let me introduce the topic, began Herbert, who had been watching Pip's table manners for some little time, `by mentioning that in London it is not the custom to put the knife in the mouth—for fear of accidents—and that while the fork is reserved for that use it is not put further in than necessary. It is scarcely worth mentioning, only it's as well to do as other people do. Also, the spoon is not generally used over-hand but under. This has two advantages. You get at your mouth better (which after all is the object), and you save a good deal of the attitude of opening oysters on the part of the right elbow.'

"He offered these suggestions (said Pip) in such a lively way, that we both laughed and I scarcely blushed."

The conversation and the dinner continued and the friendship grew apace. Presently Herbert broke off to observe that "society as a body does not expect one to be so strictly conscientious in emptying one's glass, as to turn it bottom up-wards with the rim on one's nose."

"I had been doing this," Pip confessed, "in an excess of attention to his recital. I thanked him, and apologized. He said, `Not at all,' and resumed."

This was written many years ago but neither in life nor in literature is there a more beautiful example of perfect courtesy than that given by Herbert Pocket when he took the blacksmith's boy in hand and began his education in the art of being a gentleman. Not only was he at perfect ease himself but—and this is the important point —he put the blacksmith's boy at ease.

It is worth remarking, by way of parenthesis, that Herbert's father was a gentleman. "It is a principle of his," declared the boy, "that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself."

The American table service is not complicated. Any intelligent person who knows the points covered by Herbert Pocket, who knows that one should not cut up all of his meat at the same time but mouthful by mouthful as he needs it, that it is not customary to butter a whole slice of bread at once nor to plaster cheese over the en-tire upper surface of a cracker, can by a dint of watching how other people do it find his way without embarrassment through even the most elaborate array of table implements. The easiest way to acquire good table manners (or good manners of any other kind, as far as that goes) is to form the habit of observing how the people who manage these things most gracefully go about it. It is best to begin early. To use one of David Harem's expressive maxims, "Ev'ry hoss c'n do a thing better 'n' spryer if he's ben broke to it as a colt."

Eating should be, and, as a matter of fact, is, when one follows his usual custom, an unconscious process like the mechanical part of reading or writing. It is only when he is trying to be a bit more formal or fastidious than is habitual with him that a man gets tangled, so to speak, in the tines of his fork.

Cooking is one of the fine arts. Poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, and millionaires have al-ways paid tribute to it as such—and so is dining. Like a great many other arts it was first developed among royal circles, and there was a time when the king resented the idea of a commoner being able to dine with grace and elegance. Since then it has become democratized, and now there are no restrictions except those which a man places about himself. And there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason why a man should not eat in the way which society has established as correct, and a good many reasons why he should.

Physicians—and this is the strongest argument we know—might advance their plea on the grounds of good health. In this case we find, as we do in a number of others, that what good manners declares should be done is heartily endorsed at the same time by good sense. It is only among people of blunted sensibilities that nice table manners count for nothing; for

There's no reproach among swine, d'you see, For being a bit of a swine.

Among business men it is often perplexing to know whom and when to invite. Generally speaking, the older man or the man with the superior position takes the initiative, but there are an infinite number of exceptions. Generally speaking, also, the man who is resident in a place entertains the one who is visiting, but there are infinite exceptions to this as well, especially in the case of traveling salesman. All courtesy is mutual, and it is almost obligatory upon the salesman who has been entertained to return the courtesy in kind. Such invitations should be tendered after a transaction is completed rather than before. The burden of table courtesy falls upon the man who is selling rather than the one who is buying, probably because he is the one to whom the obvious profit accrues.

Social affairs among the wives of business men which grow out of the business relations of their husbands follow the same rules as almost any other social affairs. Nearly always it is the wife of the man with the higher position who is-sues the first invitation, and it is permissible for her to invite a woman whom she does not know personally if she is the wife of a business friend of her husband.

The biggest hindrance to the establishment of good manners among business men is the ever-lasting hurry in which they (and all the rest of us) live. There must first of all be leisure, not perhaps to the extent advocated by a delightful literary gentleman of having three hours for lunch every day, but time enough to sit down and relax. Thousands of business men dash out to lunch—bad manners are at their worst in the middle of the day—as if they were stopping off at a railroad junction with twenty minutes to catch a train and had used ten of them checking baggage. And they do not always do it because they are in a hurry. They have so thoroughly developed the habit of living in a frenzied rush that even when they have time to spare they can-not slow down.

Pleasant surroundings are desirable. It is much easier to dine in a quiet spacious room where the linen is white and the china is thin, the silver is genuine silver, and the service is irreproachable, than in a crowded restaurant where thick dishes rattle down on white-tiled tables from the steaming arms of the flurried waitress, where there is no linen, but only flimsy paper napkins (which either go fluttering to the floor or else form themselves into damp wads on the table) , where the patrons eat ravenously and untidily, and where the atmosphere is dense with the fumes of soup and cigarettes. But luxury in eating is expensive and most of us must, perforce, go to the white-tiled places. And the art of dining is not a question of what one has to eat—it may be beans or truffles—or where one eats it—from a tin bucket or a mahogany table—it all depends upon how; and the man who can eat in a "hash-house," an "arm-chair joint," a "beanerie," a cafeteria, a three-minute doughnut stand or any of the other quick-lunch places in as mannerly a way as if he were dining in a hotel de luxe has, we think, a pretty fair claim to the title of gentleman.

The responsibility for a dinner lies with the host. If his guest has had the same social training that he has or is accustomed to better things he will have comparatively little trouble. All he can do is to give him the best within his means without apology. We like to present ourselves in the best possible light (it is only human) and for this reason often carry our friends to places we cannot afford. This imposes upon them the necessity of returning the dinner in kind, and the vicious circle swings around, each person in it grinding his teeth with rage but not able to find his way out. Entertaining is all right so long as it is a useful adjunct to business, but when it becomes a burden in itself it is time to call a halt.

Smoking during and immediately after a meal is very pleasing to the man who likes tobacco, but if he has a guest (man or woman) who objects to the smell of it he must wait until later. On the other hand if his guest likes to smoke and he does not he should insist upon his doing so. It is a trifling thing but politeness consists largely of yielding gracefully in trifles.

Old-fashioned gentlemen held it discourteous to mention money at table, but in this degenerate age no subject is taboo except those that would be taboo in any decent society. Obviously when men meet to talk over business they cannot leave money out of the discussion. In a number of firms the executives have lunch together, meeting in a group for perhaps the only time during the day. It helps immeasurably to coordinate effort, but it sometimes fails to make the lunch hour the restful break in the middle of the day which it should be. It is generally much more fun and of much more benefit to swap fish stories and hunting yarns than to go over the de-tails of the work in the publicity department or to formulate the plans for handling the Smith and Smith proposition. Momentous questions should be thrust aside until later, and the talk should be—well, talk, not arguing, quarreling, or scandal-mongering. The subject does not greatly matter except that it should be something in which all of the people at the table are interested. Whistler was once asked what he would do if he were out at dinner and the conversation turned to the Mexican War, and some one asked him the date of a certain battle. "Do?" he replied. "Why, I would refuse to associate with people who could talk of such things at dinner!"

Polite society has always placed a high value on table manners, but it is only recently that they have come to play so large a part in business. Some one has said that you cannot mix business and friendship. It would be nearer the truth to say that you cannot separate them. More and more it is becoming the habit to transact affairs over the table, and a very pleasant thing it is, too. Aside from the coziness and warmth" which comes from breaking bread together one is free from the interruptions and noise of the office, and many a commercial acquaintance has ripened into a friend and many a business connection has been cemented into something stronger through the genial influence of some-thing good to eat and drink. It is, of course, a mistake to depend too much upon one's social gifts. They are very pleasant and helpful but the work of the world is done in offices, not on golf links or in dining rooms. We have little patience with the man who sets his nose to the grindstone and does not take it away until death comes in between, but we have just as little with the man who has never touched the grindstone.

Stories go the rounds of executives who choose their subordinates by asking them out to lunch and watching the way they eat. One man always calls for celery and judges his applicant by what he does with it. If he eats only the tender parts the executive decides that he is extravagant, at least with other people's money, but if he eats the whole stalk, green leaves and all, he feels sure that he has before him a man of economy, common sense, and good judgment ! The story does not say what happens when the young man refuses celery altogether. Another uses cherry pie as his standard and judges the young man by what he does with the pits. There are three ways to dispose of them. They may be lowered from the mouth with the spoon, they may be allowed to drop unaided, or they may be swallowed. The last course is not recommended. The first is the only one that will land a job. But tests like this work both ways and one is rather inclined to congratulate the young men who were turned down than those who were accepted.

All this aside, an employer does want to know, something about the table manners of an employee who is to meet and dine with his customers. An excellent salesman may be able to convince a man of good breeding and wide social training if he tucks his napkin into his bosom, drinks his soup with a noise, and eats his meat with his knife, but the chances are against it.

A man who is interested heart and soul in one thing will think in terms of it, will have it constantly in his mind and on the tip of his tongue. But the man of one subject, whatever that subject may be, is a bore. It is right that a man should live in his work, but he must also live out-side of it. One of the most tragic chapters in the history of American life is the one which tells of the millions and millions of men who be-came so immersed in business affairs that they lost sight of everything else. The four walls of the narrow house which in the end closes around us all could not more completely have cut them off from the light of day. It is a long procession and it has not ended—that line of men passing single file like convicts down the long gray vaults of business, business, business, with never a thought for the stars or the moon or books or trees or flowers or music or life or love—nothing but what casts a shadow over that dismal corridor.

These are dead men with no thought Of things that are not sold or bought.



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