An Etiquette Lesson

Last summer as part of my internship, I was coerced into taking an etiquette class. The format of the night was presented to us beforehand: it would be a four-course dinner beginning with an hors d’oeuvres hour. Back then, as a financial industries aspirant and intern, I inherently knew this was applicable, but I still believed  it would only be a snub-nosed event. As a self-proclaimed klutz and a loud one at that, I knew the long rectangular table soirees that were in store for me made me nervous and anxious. However despite the relevance and evident need for the class, I was still not looking forward to it. I mean what could they teach me that common sense or my mother’s nagging already didn’t? Small bites…chew with your mouth closed…listen more than talk.

Whatever.

But here’s the clincher, I was wrong. I did not know literally the first thing the instructor taught us about etiquette. It is something that has stuck with me since then.

What is etiquette? What exactly, and concisely, is the definition of this over-used, flouncy term?

She patiently listened to all our answers before she enlightened us with her own two cents. Our suggestions, each a synonymous version of “formalities” or “good behavior,” did not correctly encapsulate an unbiased meaning to the term. But her response did.

Etiquette is behaving in a way that makes others around you comfortable.

That’s really all there is to it.

Whether seated at a family gathering with riotous siblings or before a smattering of differently sized eating utensils at a professional dinner, your behavior evolves according to the comfort of your audience. Furthermore, your etiquette is dynamic to your environment, in all situations. Though these examples have been meal-time heavy, the lesson rings true in any sort of personal interaction.

Moving forward, I can confidently say this salient experience has stuck with me through my last semester as an abroad student in Hong Kong to a local student, now, in Philadelphia.

In writing this piece, I hope to give a little more credit to a stuffy term, and to open up its significance to those who, just as I did, saw it as something relevant only to formal situations. I use this lesson when I’m hanging out with garrulous friends, TAing for a group of nervous freshman, or feeling out new acquaintances during first encounters. Sniffing out this zone of comfortable interaction is something everyone has done, but it is nearly never recognized or marked by a term that can accurately always apply – etiquette.

Thus, my past coerced attendance became one of the most useful events of the entire summer.

We did not dwell on the meaning of etiquette for long though. The class progressed into more tangible lessons, such as how to hold a wine glass and small plate in one hand, leaving the other free for introductory shakes and never to order tangled spaghetti at formal dinners. Our instructor also enlightened us with “safe” conversation topics and took our “what-if” questions with ease. As a whole, the dinner filled our snobbery expectations as well as went beyond them. But nothing really resounded as well as the very first part.

Last week at a meal with a potential employer, my recruiter happened to order a big plate of messy spaghetti. It sounded so good that I took the dive and ordered it too.

Did I break a rule?

When the food came, we both attacked the tangle with our forks, and the meal was not one bit uncomfortable. In fact, the dish similarity gave it a likeness that would not have existed had I tiptoed on eggshells per my prior impression of formality.

My etiquette instructor would have been proud.