Dangerous Liaisons

By Emily Gold Boutilier / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
Agnes G. Doody barked out orders like a drill sergeant, her hair spiraled into a gravity-defying bun and secured in a net. "We're going to start," she instructed 140 seniors seated nervously at tables of ten, "by taking our napkin and folding it in our lap."

So began Brown's first Etiquette Dinner, held at the Faculty Club on a Friday night in January and designed to teach members of the class of 2002 how to act while dining with a prospective employer. The lesson, organized at the request of students, was part of Career Week 2002. The next day, students would have the opportunity to mingle with 100 alumni - over lunch. Doody, a professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island, told her charges that in this world of "working moms, TV dinners," and drive-through fast food, "our manners - general civility - have been shot to hell!"

As the students dined on garden salad, Cornish game hens, red wine, and messy brownie sundaes, Doody circled the room issuing dire warnings.

On every table, she announced, is a land mine - an enemy even more daunting than the slow economy.

"The dressing?" a student suggested.

"Absolutely!" Doody replied. With the slip of an elbow, she explained, the spoon resting in the bowl of raspberry vinaigrette could flip over, ruining a crisp white blouse or new silk tie.

The cherry tomato posed a double threat. "Do not send it across the table," Doody admonished. For those who doubt their ability to pierce the round fruit with a fork, she offered a solution: "Develop a quick allergy to tomatoes."

Doody admitted that her choice of game hens for the entr}e was a "dirty trick." Her advice: never, ever order a meal that takes so much concentration to eat.

The students, anxious about their first interviews, queried her endlessly:

What do you do if someone asks a question while you're chewing? (Point to your mouth and smile.)

How much alcohol is it acceptable to consume? (Two drinks, and never order the hard stuff at lunch.)

How do you excuse yourself to go to the restroom? ("Say, ԐPlease excuse me for a moment'... You don't need to say why. We know why.")

Doody then gave tips for the next day's "networking lunch" with alumni. As a conversation starter, she advised asking a question such as "What was Brown like when you were here?" She also warned the seniors to be prepared to answer the question "Why should I hire you?"

Throughout the lesson, the seniors took great pains to keep their elbows off the table and to say "please" and "thank you" while passing the sour cream. But breaking four years of bad habits isn't easy. One woman used her fingers to pick off the last bits of meat from her wishbone, and then asked a classmate to break it with her - for good luck.

Doody's attention, thankfully, was elsewhere.

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Related Issue
March / April 2002