Politesse at OCS: OWAW Etiquette Dinner

So you’ve finished your internships, almost finished with school, and survived the soul-crushing crucible of job applications and nth round ...

So you’ve finished your internships, almost finished with school, and survived the soul-crushing crucible of job applications and nth round interviews with the herculean poise befitting a Harvard student. Now it’s time for the final one-on-one interview over lunch with the corporate representative. As you sit down to begin your final test, your eyes quickly scan your immediate surroundings with practiced attention to detail, and suddenly you feel beads of sweat materializing upon the palms of your hands, as you look helplessly at the incomprehensible array of silverware staring you down from its comfortable perch on the delicate puce table cloth. Before you know it, you’re back in your parents’ place staring blankly at the unforgiving form letter before you and you wonder—what went wrong?

Fortunately, the Office of Career Services (OCS) knows that no prepared student of etiquette should ever find him or herself in this scenario. During Optional Winter Activities Week (OWAW), OCS sponsored an Etiquette Dinner at the Sheraton Commander, inviting international business etiquette expert Deborah Thomas-Nininger to give a two-hour long crash course on the essentials of business etiquette.

Walking into the smoothly lit lobby of the Sheraton Commander last Friday night, half an hour early for the course, I found myself strangely nervous to meet this so-called etiquette professional. Never having been schooled much in the subject of manners, I couldn’t help but think about how many mistakes I would inadvertently make standing before her trained eyes.

It seemed to be a hallmark of the night—the awkward self-consciousness of students keenly aware of their every little mannerism. And as I stood in the lobby waiting to meet the organizer of the event, OCS’ Maureen Hilton, I couldn’t help but feel that the painting of George Washington placed ever-so-appropriately outside of the George Washington Ballroom was eying me with those eerie blue eyes.

As soon as I was led into the ballroom and introduced to Thomas-Nininger, though, all my worries immediately dissolved.

Standing confidently with noticeably good posture, Thomas-Nininger, wearing a tasteful yet conservative black business suit with a slightly more adventurous patterned scarf, exuded an aura of warmth and sincerity. By the time I introduced myself, the most punctual attendees had already begun to trickle in. Within minutes, the ballroom was packed with undergraduate, graduate, and even doctoral students dressed up in suits and business attire.

While most of the students seemed to have already acquired much experience in the subtleties of etiquette in business interviews and other situations, many expressed a desire to learn some more just in case.

“What attracted me to this event is that the presentation is focused on the global aspect of etiquette, not just which fork or spoon to use for which course—it’s about cultural awareness,” said Shirley C. Sun, a researcher at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who expected that the information in the presentation would benefit her when she travels abroad to conduct research.

Others mentioned the desire to simply refine their own presentation in sensitive settings.

“I’m trying to be as natural as possible but also formal too,” said Chadwick E. Eason ’13, an engineering sciences concentrator planning to travel to Japan in the spring and to do more traveling in the future.


By the time the servers began bringing out baskets of bread with butter, the etiquette lesson had already commenced, starting with the most important of all skills for aspiring professionals: mixing and mingling.

The first step, said Thomas-Nininger, is to make sure to put the sticker labeled with your name on your right breast, not your left, advice that led to a small symphony of sticker removal noises followed by stickers silently being reapplied. A modest encore followed later on in the evening, when we learned that the knife is to be placed horizontally at the top of the plate with the blade facing in when not in use.

A general point Thomas-Nininger emphasized from the get-go was that the rules of etiquette are not designed to be a labyrinth of arbitrary mannerisms, but were created with practicality in mind: for instance, all bags and other objects are to placed on the right side of your seat (not slung over the back of your seat in the case of messenger bags—“an accident waiting to happen” for the servers) so that when you exit your seat from the right side, you don’t step over anyone’s things besides your own.

Here’s another example: why do you scoop the soup away from you and then transfer it up and over to your mouth, gently tilting the spoon so you can sip the soup? It’s so that the soup-immersed spoon can gently graze the inside of the bowl and remove any excess soup that would later divebomb from the spoon in transit.

Other interesting facts: the number one reason people cross their arms isn’t because they’re defensive—it’s because it feels good in supporting the spine and improving the posture of the back (the number two reason? The room is too cold). Jackets may never be removed during a meal. Never, that is, unless everyone else chooses to remove their jackets, but that’s still a judgment call.

As the evening progressed, questions from attendees ranged from what to do when finding a hair in your food (discreetly signal the waiter and ask to have the dish replaced without alerting others to the offending article), to what to do when offered a drink (always refuse politely at a business lunch—the question isn’t really a question but a trap to test candidates’ integrity—and accept at a dinner, but never propose a drink under any circumstance), to how to hold a wine glass (hold the glass by the stem with two fingers away and two towards you with the thumb facing towards you; higher on the base of the stem for red wine, but lower for white wine because of the differing temperatures at which the wines are usually served).

By the end of the evening, the world of uncomfortable business interviews didn’t seem as intimidating.

Some parts of the lesson were discomforting, such as the revelation that some businesses keep all thank-you cards sent by interviewed candidates (“They also collect your napkin and put it into the file as well to see how messy you were,” quipped Justin L. Sola ’13), but attendees seemed pleasantly satisfied, and a large line of students formed afterwards to continue speaking to and learning from Thomas-Nininger.

“The presentation was pretty interactive, so now I feel pretty good on my own,” said Eason.

“Tonight went beyond my expectations. We shouldn’t assume if we’re university-educated citizens that we’re more prepared for these situations than people from other backgrounds because they’re always still so much to learn,” said Sun.