Ajit Bopalkar gingerly ate a few leaves of spinach with a fork in his left hand and a knife in his right. For the right-handed student at the Tepper School of Business, it wasn’t the most natural way to dine on salad. But as he learned that evening, it was the most polite way.
Bopalkar, a freshman business administration student from Edison, N.J., was eager to absorb the fine points of formal business dining during the Tepper School’s Etiquette Dinner, which was held at the University Club in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Course by elegant course, he and some 75 other freshmen, decked out in suits and business attire, learned the table manners they would one day need to make a good impression during a job interview or formal business dinner.
“It definitely was a very helpful guide,” Bopalkar said. “I would use what I learned during an interview.”
Three weeks into their first semester, freshman took a short break from economics, marketing and other coursework to receive their etiquette lesson over a meal of chicken marsala, gold brick salmon or vegetable napoleon. Under the ballroom’s crystal chandeliers, they learned which of three forks to use for dessert (the horizontal one on top of the plate), whether to take their jackets off mid-meal (only if the host takes his off first) and how to eat soup (with small, outward strokes). “Every little detail matters,” said Rubab Jafry-O’Conner, associate director of the undergraduate business administration program.
Even napkin etiquette was examined in depth. “First, you take the napkin and place it on your lap — not around your neck,” said Milton Cofield, executive director of the undergraduate business administration program and teaching professor of business management.
As the “etiquette coach” for the evening, Cofield guided the first-years through their meal. When excusing themselves, he advised students to fold their napkins and place them on the table — not the seat.
As the waiters dished up bowls of minestrone soup, students were advised to wait until everyone was served before taking the first sip. “You follow the lead of the host.”
Cofield warned students that the rules of etiquette vary by culture. For example, while slurping soup is usually looked upon as gauche in Europe and the United States, it might be considered polite in some Asian cultures.
Danica Chan, a sophomore and emcee of the Etiquette Dinner, asked Cofield what students should do if they are served something they don’t like. “If you are in a restaurant, just leave it alone,” Cofield said, adding that while it’s okay to ask the waiter for a substitution, make sure you don’t cause a distraction. In a private home, he advised guests to try everything so as not to offend the host.
Cofield urged students to resist the urge to order the most expensive entree on the menu. “You are not there for the food,” he reminded them. “You are there for another business purpose.”
He also pointed out that etiquette extends beyond the table. “We want to introduce you to the whole concept that a proper kind of behavior is very important for people to have any kind of success,” he said. He urged students to address their instructors as “doctor” or “professor,” not their first names.
Dean Robert Dammon quipped that there was a lot of pressure on the dean to have good etiquette during the annual etiquette dinner. He reminded students that good manners reflect “how you conduct yourself and how you treat people in life.”
Sean Park, a sophomore business administration major, who helped organize the event with Chan, said he learned a lot because he had missed attended last year’s dinner. “When I walked in, I wasn’t sure why there were three forks and two spoons,” he said. “Now I know. It’s a great learning experience. We do it every year so the freshman can be properly trained.”
Sonia Shi, a freshman from China, was especially grateful for the training. As a child, she had learned chopsticks etiquette from her grandmother. She left the dinner with a clear understanding of how to use all those forks and spoons framing the plate. “It’s really very helpful.”