Etiquette 101: Why ASU Helps Students Master Table Manners
When 11,000 undergraduate students at Arizona State University accept diplomas Monday night, they’ll join nearly 2 million undergrads nationwide.
While they’re leaving behind university tests, they will face social tests. That’s why ASU designed a four-course meal for students with lessons most of us can use.
On a Wednesday evening in April, ASU sophomore Juan McGee stepped outside his comfort zone.
“My major’s in applied computing so like IT,” he said. “I’m not sure how this is going to help me, but I’m sure it can.”
McGee joined dozens of other students for an etiquette dinner at the west campus in Glendale.
“I actually kind of don’t know what to expect so I’m just open to whatever the learning experience is and I just want to soak it in like a sponge,” McGee said.
For more than 10 years, ASU has offered dinners for students to learn about professional behaviors in social settings. The April meal, organized by Career and Professional Development Services, was led by sophomores Ana Paula Chavarry Pizzorno and Kierran Orr.
“My dad is a businessman and we’ve always had kind of like company events, company meetings, company — I don’t know — like fundraisers and things like that and I’ve always had to be proper, you know?” Pizzorno said.
She’s also experienced etiquette classes. Her high school in Peru held them three times a year.
“I grew up in like a wealthier family and I never got this sort of training,” said Orr. “I went to a private school, a private Catholic school, and while there were etiquette dinners it wasn’t really my scene.”
It’s his scene this night as he and Pizzorno walk fellow students through a formal dining experience—hopefully, with limited slurps and slip ups.
“First and foremost,” Orr said. “Let’s take that napkin and put it on our lap.”
“Then you’re going to start introducing yourself to all the table members,” Pizzorno said.
You don’t need a psychology degree to know certain situations can produce anxiety—like trying to figure out which spoon and fork to use. And what about bread plates and drinks? Orr suggested an easy way to figure out which glass to grab.
“You put your fingers up like the okay sign and one makes a ‘b’ which is for bread plate and one makes a ‘d’ for drinks,” he said.
Through soup and salad, lasagna and dessert, the questions flowed faster than water refills. They ranged from where to put purses, phones and sugar wrappers to how to signal food servers and how much to talk.
When students have interviews, Mollie Sutherland hears all about them — not just from the job seekers, but employers.
“A lot of them provide feedback directly to us about new hires or students they are interviewing and saying, ‘You know, they couldn’t get through the interview’ or ‘we had a business dinner we invited them to and there was very little etiquette present,’” she said.
As assistant director, career and professional development services, Sutherland’s job is to help students get jobs. That’s why they offer not just dinners, but business etiquette classes.
“Many of our students learn how to answer questions with a proper explanation,” she said. “They also learn different ways of being culturally aware because a handshake and eye contact is not appropriate in all cultures.”
Cultural norms also vary at the table. One student wondered if it’s polite to clean your plate in the United States or leave some food?
“Either is OK,” said Pizzorno “If you’re in China, you do not want to finish the whole plate because they’ll serve you another plate and keep serving you and serving you if you keep cleaning the plate.”
Pacing is mentioned throughout the four-course meal. And even the etiquette leaders admit it can be tough.
“I eat food quickly because I grew up with ten siblings,” said Orr. “When dinner was served it was like get your food or don’t eat, right?”
“The whole dinner I’ll just be waiting for dessert and once it comes first I have to wait (until) everyone has their dessert,” said Pizzorno. “I need to wait until the host gets the first spoon, you know, the first bite."
By the time chocolate cake is served, most people’s bellies are full—and so are their brains. It’s a lot to digest. Remember Juan McGee, the applied computing major who wasn’t sure how the dinner would help him?
“Well, now I feel more comfortable if I was to have like an interview or you know a professional setting eating and I would kind of like know how to come and establish myself, you know,” he said.
Still, there’s more to learn and practice. That’s why ASU holds dinners every semester. McGee plans to make a reservation this fall.