Finishing School for the Fortune 500
Flanked by gilt-framed mirrors and sconces at the Ritz-Carlton, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe calls out a warning: Hands off the flatware until the hostess gives the signal!
It’s time for lunch, but it’s also the beginning of a class for two dozen business people.
The idea behind the school is that knowing where the soup spoon rests on the consomme saucer is a way to climb the corporate as well as the social ladder. And corporate executives and sales professionals are willing to fork over $450 for a daylong session on company manners at the table and elsewhere.
For the lunch session, the students self-consciously unfold their napkins--under the table, with the fold facing the stomach--as the waitress makes her way through potted palm foliage with a silver tureen of lobster and corn chowder.
“Do you say ‘Thank you’ to your waiters?” asks Mike Clemmey, a vice president for Boch Enterprises, a widely known local car dealership.
“Yes, but not if you’re in the midst of a conversation,” Tunnicliffe says. But thank them often.
Waitress Allison Perry thinks the etiquette class is a good idea. Only about 20% of the Ritz-Carlton’s guests know the difference between a fish fork and a pitchfork, she guesses. The regular patrons have the flatware routine “down to a T.”
Tunnicliffe’s message is simple: Be polite at all times. At the table. Anywhere you do business.
Never lick your fingers. If you’re pregnant, don’t ask colleagues to feel the baby kick. And, please, you young hotshots with the MBAs, don’t take up too much space.
“Many young people in the workplace, armed with their MBAs, dash into the corporate meeting room, grab the best seat in the room and spread their papers out” Tunnicliffe says. “That is very offensive. You should always ask the senior person in the room where to sit.”
Are such lessons really needed? Tunnicliffe and her husband, Guy, have made a good business convincing people around the country that they are.
Tunnicliffe, who has a degree in advertising from the University of Missouri, started teaching etiquette to children in 1991. When the children started correcting their parents, the parents started seeking her advice. The Ps and Qs patrol was born.
Now Tunnicliffe teaches poise and polish to thousands of corporate executives, business owners and sales professionals every year. Most people come willingly. Some are sent.
Those who are sent are often “a little miffed,” she said.
The Boch car executives are thrilled to be there. Three sit with Tunnicliffe’s husband as he coaches them through a business meal.
Plug your product at the end of the entree or the beginning of dessert, he says. The car salesmen barely take their eyes off him--or, rather, his flatware--as he describes the difference between American and continental styles of eating a salad, where to put your hands and how to make light conversation.
Clemmey attempts the latter: “If you want an American car, I’ve got an Oldsmobile for you,” Clemmey says.
Tunnicliffe suggests that reading the newspaper is a good way to find light topics of conversation.
But light conversation hardly compares to eating a mixed green salad dripping with balsamic dressing in both continental and American styles.
“How do you know when you’re doing continental and when you’re doing American?” asks Scott Geller, a general manager at Boch Mitsubishi.
“It’s what you choose to do,” Tunnicliffe says.
Shoulders sag with relief.
“How about portions?” Geller asks. “In some households, your mother is pushing it on you, you know, ‘Eat more, more.’ ”
“Don’t go to a business meeting or a cocktail party hungry,” Guy Tunnicliffe says. “You’re there for a reason.”
Geller views the seminar as a way to upgrade the image of the auto industry.
“We were never trained in the social etiquecies,” says Geller, repeating a word of his own invention. “We could be what you’d call repulsive and never know it. This makes us look at ourselves deeper. It’s refining. No one in the automotive industry is refined.”