A modern Miss Manners

What to do with your napkin at dinner? When is it OK to text at the table? The easy answer to both questions? Good etiquette never goes out of style.

There was no way I was going to be late for a meeting with Michelle Snow. I know that should go without saying, but coffee with an etiquette coach? I made sure I was good and early.

Snow is a seasoned event planner and project manager, having organized everything from student functions to conferences to convocations to formal dinners. She’s worked with heads of state, senior military officers, and recording artists. She says she became a master of etiquette by necessity.

“Growing up, we never sat down together for a family dinner,” she says. Everyone was too busy running the family business, and meals had to be eaten in shifts. “I’d say I ate more dinners in front of the TV or in my room than anywhere else.”

The result? When it came time to organize sit-down dinners, often involving dignitaries or people from different cultures, Snow found herself feeling self-conscious and, sometimes, at a loss.

Not for long. Through her own observations and intuition – and a little help from Emily Post – Snow quickly learned what she needed to know. From there, she progressed to giving workshops on etiquette. It’s not just about avoiding embarrassment; it’s about being comfortable. After all, if you’re too worried about using the wrong fork or saying the wrong thing, you’re not likely able to fully engage in the conversation around you.

It’s a full-fledged side business for Snow now – from one-on-one training to corporate seminars on how to dine, network and behave in the professional world. No matter the topic, the founder of MHS Presentations says her advice always comes down to three things: “courtesy, honesty, and respect.”

“It’s not about how to drink a cup of tea,” Snow laughs, “though I can tell you that too.”

Mobile mentality
My personal pet peeve is the inappropriate use of mobile devices: texting at the table; checking email during conversations; ringers going off all the time, everywhere; business professionals talking into their phones while ordering coffee or paying for lunch …

Snow laughs. And reverts to her mantra: courtesy, honesty, respect. “Technology is a tool. It can help you be more efficient, but it cannot replace the human interaction,” she says. “That is the most precious thing – no successful business can exist without personal relationships.

“Is it respectful for me to sit at a table with you and text someone else? It’s obvious; it’s not. But we don’t stop to think about it.”

Yes, cell phones should be off and away from the table during dinner parties. Business lunches may be a little different, but check your email before and after the meal, not during. If there is an exception (e.g. if you’re a member of the volunteer fire department or a big deal is about to break), advise the other people ahead of time. And always excuse yourself.

“We are enamoured by technology,” Snow says. “But when we’re distracted by it, are we missing the opportunity to connect with someone, to make a great business deal, to pick up a key piece of information?”

As Snow points out, networking doesn’t just happen at networking events – it can happen in the elevator, in a lineup, anywhere – even when you don’t expect it. Think of it this way: never lose the ability to have, or the appreciation for, the one-on-one encounter.

Speaking of networking …

As for formal networking events, Snow also has some words of wisdom. Who hasn’t faced a room full of strangers and felt a surge of fear or a loss of confidence? Who hasn’t scanned the room, found a familiar face, and stuck by that person like glue?

Again, “think of all the missed opportunities,” Snow bemoans. The key is to be prepared. Know who might be in attendance, and who you’d like to talk to. Make a plan. Snow has three easy ways into conversation: first, be generic and talk about current events, or weather; second, open with an event-specific comment – talk about the keynote speaker, for example; third, start with a topic that is specific to the individual (don’t be creepy about it, but you could ask a relevant question).

Snow has a wealth of etiquette advice and insight, from what to do with your napkin at a formal dinner (fold it in half and place it in your lap, with the opening facing you – the better to delicately wipe your fingers in) to how to handle clashes within corporate culture.

Although some may urge the relaxing of protocols and formalities, Snow is proof that good manners never go out of style.

Stephanie Porter
About Stephanie Porter

Stephanie Porter is a freelance writer and editor living in St. John’s. In 2003, she helped launch The Independent, a spirited weekly newspaper distributed across Newfoundland and Labrador, known for its investigative news and features. Stephanie was managing editor of the paper until its untimely demise in 2008. She has also worked as a reporter and writer for Downhome magazine, the Express (also now defunct), The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, picking up Atlantic Journalism Awards for her feature and news writing. Stephanie is delighted to be a regular contributor to Atlantic Business Magazine. Photo Credit: Paul Daly.

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