I slouch. I like swear words. I can’t keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics and I’m notorious for knocking drinks over dinner tables. I don’t think I have the worst manners in the world, but I’ll be the first to admit that my etiquette skills would likely put a crack in the Queen’s teacup.
With gala season looming ahead, it seemed like a good time to call in the professionals. I sought out Crystal L. Bailey, the founder of The Etiquette Institute of Washington to maybe give me a little more finesse.
As we sat down for lunch at the Hyatt Centric Arlington, the first thing I noticed was that Crystal’s posture is impeccable - understandable considering she’s coached thousands of people on table manners, networking techniques and international etiquette rules since becoming an executive coach in 2012. Posture, as Crystal told me, is important in all situations, so I tried to keep my spine straight for our meal-based manners lesson, which she also offers on her website.
I’ll admit I expected a scolding at some point, but Crystal was gentle when she explained how to get through formal events without causing a faux pas. If it’s an event that requires meeting and greeting, Crystal had a few suggestions:
- Skip the hors d’oeuvres - I’ll admit this one is a little painful for me, but Crystal pointed out it’s harder to shake hands and introduce yourself if you’re scarfing down mini-sliders.
- Figure out who’s on the guest list - Especially if it’s a more intimate event - like, say, a White House Correspondents’ Dinner pre-party, you can ask your host who will be in attendance. Even if you’re not necessarily looking to network for a specific purpose, it never hurts to be prepared if there’s a chance you’ll cross paths with someone you want to meet.
- Don’t lean too much on your crutch - Whether it’s booze or your plus one, people have the tendency to use a crutch to avoid meeting new people. Get out there!
Meals, as it turns out, are a minefield.
Crystal explained there are two styles of etiquette at the table - American and Continental. Europeans favor continental and Crystal suggests Washingtonians defer to that etiquette style because of D.C.’s international residents - that means always keeping your hands above the table and never putting down your knife.
- Speaking of knives - You’re supposed to wield it with your dominant hand. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not I ever get a hang of this one, but it does slow down even the fastest eaters.
- Really, knives are important - Don't cut up all of your food at once, just slice it piece-by-piece.
- Consider others at the table - Ask the host what they’re having to gauge their price point and how many courses they’re ordering and try to get dishes in that range. Skip anything handheld or messy, so no pizza you barbarian.
- Use the napkin - No matter your preferred style of etiquette, always fold your napkin in your lap and use it to dab at your mouth. At formal events, women can also put their purses under the napkin or, alternatively, at the small of their back.
A lot of etiquette is seeped in tradition, but Crystal said a lot of the rules have caught up with modern times and can be applied to more casual settings. Regardless of the dress code, the size of the crowd or your age, there are a few rules to live by:
- Phones - Keep them off the table and don't check them during your meal. You're not fooling anyone by checking it under your napkin.
- Stop talking about politics - I could get this tattooed on my forehead and still break this rule at least twice a month. Still, when you're in a crowd of people you don't know, Crystal suggests sticking to the FORD talking points - Family, Occupation, Recreation and Dreams. Maybe skip the weird dreams involving Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, but I don't think anyone can judge you for that.
- Know how to make an exit - Crystal says people ask her about this the most. The best way to make an exit is to tell the other person it was a pleasure meeting them and try to connect them to someone else in the room they might have something in common with. Even if its their mutual dislike of Tinder or IPAs.
The most important thing, Crystal said, was to just roll with it. If you drop a bite of lamb shank, like I did mid-way through lunch, just don't make a fuss and diffuse any awkwardness with a sense of humor.