Taking elbows off the table to secure success

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Taking elbows off the table to secure success
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By Derrick Perkins (Courtesy photo)

Whether it’s the fast pace of modern life or a coarsening of culture, Fannie Allen can’t say, but too many young people are entering the workforce without knowledge of etiquette.

Allen, who runs the Allen Etiquette Institute in Cameron Station, distinctly recalls coming face to face with her lack of proper dining protocols. Not long after graduating from college, she was invited to a seven-course meal with an ambassador while traveling abroad.

The daughter of Georgia sharecroppers, Allen had seen few multiple-course meals. Her parents taught her to respect others, but the finer points of eating with an ambassador were not part of home life, she said.

“I could barely get through one course at my home. I did get through it and became quite acquainted to the person to my right and to my left as I was watching them [handle themselves]. But I didn’t know I was supposed to be watching the host,” she said. “I swore that that situation would never happen to me again.”

Her institute, with branches in Alexandria and Atlanta, aims to send people of all ages into the business world prepared for any level of etiquette. She recently wrapped up Kool Akademy, a weeklong summer camp designed to instill etiquette from public presentations to the business lunch in local youth.

Children enrolled learned the basics of fine dining, including waiting to eat until everyone has been served, keeping their elbows off of the table and small talk.

“People observe you and your appearance, your conduct and your speech and they observe you from your thought processes,” she said. “There’s a difference between eating and dining, and one should know that difference and conduct themselves accordingly. It may not be as trendy now as it used to be, but I still think it is important to know what to do and how to do it.”

Peter Baldwin, a business coach at MarketForce Strategies, agrees. Good manners go a long way to fostering the right impression.

“I have a lot of meetings over coffee or lunch or some meal of some sort. I think dining etiquette supports whatever image you have,” Baldwin said. “For one thing, it sets you apart because [not everybody] practices good etiquette, and it does support the image you’re trying to project.”

Like Allen, Baldwin has noticed a slip in etiquette from years past. He believes it’s a generational shift; young people aren’t being raised with the same standards as their parents or grandparents.

The decline in etiquette among the interns she dealt with in the business world throughout her career prompted Allen to open the institute and offer workshops and camps. It matters little whether they’ve come from well-to-do families or the inner city, youth today lack knowledge of etiquette, she said.

“I think its the level of concentration in some families,” Allen said. “In some upper-class families, time is of the essence, and in all families there are fewer meals than once were held together. It’s just a product of our time.”

Knowing dining etiquette is like understanding a second language. You may not need it when grabbing a quick bite to eat with friends, but its good to have in your back pocket, she said.

Mike Anderson, owner of Mango Mikes and Alexandria Chamber of Commerce chairman, shares her assessment.

“There is no downside to having a little more etiquette,” he said. “They talk about making a first good impression and with it being such a competitive market, all these college kids are trying to get jobs. So with a luncheon-type interview, it may be just what they need to get a job.”

Allen wants to expand her etiquette camps in the future. She envisions teaching children the finer points of dining, presentation skills and leadership qualities during holiday breaks and even holding multiple Kool Akademies next summer.

It’s all about being prepared.

“I told the students, eating at home you can be more relaxed you may slurp your soup, butter your bread in a different way, but if you’re out in a dining situation, you want to know how to handle that role,” Allen said.

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