Mind Your Manners
Annual etiquette dinner teaches more than which fork to use
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed social behavior. We’ve stopped shaking hands. Even elbow bumps are discouraged in favor of staying six feet apart.
But good manners have been with us for centuries and are likely to persist.
Thomas Padron, PhD, Cal State East Bay’s Hospitality and Tourism program coordinator, can’t stage his renowned “etiquette dinners,” where 200 people gather formally to practice the finer points of behavior. But he is still preaching the gospel of good manners.
“Etiquette is more important than ever, as etiquette is about ‘them’ (others) and less about me (us),” Padron said in an email. He notes that coronavirus customs—wearing a mask, physically distancing, washing your hands—are “about protecting others,” and their lessons should out-live the pandemic.
“Placing the regard for others before ourselves is based on etiquette, just like opening doors for others.”
At the etiquette dinners, previously hosted by former President Leroy M. Morishita, students in Padron’s program would dress up and put into practice everything they learned, from how to make eye contact to which fork to use on which course. (The shutdown caused the cancellation of last spring’s dinner; Padron cautiously hopes to have one in spring 2021.)
The rules may seem silly to some, like something they’ve seen on “Downton Abbey,” a vestige of a time and a place that doesn’t apply to 21st century California. Nothing could be further from the truth. Padron drills home a key point: Etiquette is all about respect.
“Etiquette is about the students,” Padron said. “It’s about how you present yourself. Etiquette is being respectful toward someone else. I carry that theme throughout the entire meal.”
Etiquette didn’t come naturally to Padron, who was a first-generation college student, like many of his own students. He learned it in a culinary academy and developed a passion for it.
Padron makes sure the dinner feels rooted in the students’ lives.
“I try to make it approachable and not snooty, not hoity toity, not haughty,” he said.
Simran Arora, a nurse who graduated in 2019, said she learned a lot when she participated in that year’s dinner.
“I still have pieces of paper with a couple of tips hanging in my room to this day,” she said.
“It’s definitely beneficial,” she said. “You never know when you’ll be invited to a formal dinner. If I go into management, I’ll have to revisit my old notes. It will be very relevant soon.”
The dinners take place on campus, in the University Union multipurpose room. As many as 250 graduating seniors are seated at tables, with each table hosted by a member of the university president's cabinet. Padron has to brief the adults on etiquette as well, as often even they are intimidated by the rules.
Even President Morishita seemed to learn a few things over the years. Padron said the president has told him that the dinners have his wife Barbara scolding him for every little faux pas. “He told me, ‘Every time we go home, Barbara will say, ‘You’re not to supposed to do it that way! Tom didn’t teach it that way,’” Padron said.
“That’s exactly why we do it,” he added. “It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a great time to get together, have a good time, eat some good food, be with good people in a good atmosphere. It’s about knowing how to be yourself but also be more refined and more respectful of others.”
Having the cabinet also serves another important role: Students learn how to talk with potential donors and mentors. They’re taught to make eye contact, use formal titles, and make conversation.
“When employers see somebody is a little more refined, that can be a tipping point,” Padron tells his students. “You’ve taken your time to refine yourself. It is going to pay off.”
Arora felt the student servers did an excellent job and the food was well prepared. She also liked sitting with a member of the president’s cabinet and learning a little more about how the university is run.
Most comically, she said, everyone struggled to cut the cherry tomato in their salad. “Most of the times, you’d just pop it in your mouth,” she said. She also learned to cut her pasta with a fork and knife, rather than just swirling it on her fork, as she usually would do.
“You also got exposure on how to start a conversation,” she said. “They gave us a sheet on conversation starters, how to introduce yourself, and when to use proper grammar and when it’s okay to be slightly less formal.”
When Padron’s students get jobs in the hospitality industry, he often hears from employers, “Your student spoke so well, they carried themselves so well,” he said. “When I hear that, I’m like a parent, shining.”
Younger students volunteer to serve at the dinners, which provides them a good window on what they’ll be experiencing the next year—as well as a running start at honing excellent etiquette.
“You have to serve before you can sit,” Padron said.
Daniel Marquez served at the 2019 meal and was disappointed when the coronavirus caused the university to cancel lastyear’s event. Although he has years of experience, particularly waiting tables at his family’s restaurant, Acua e Farina in downtown Hayward, he still learned a great deal at the etiquette dinner.
“Every day, you learn, even if you’ve been in the industry for 20 years,” Marquez says. “There’s stuff I didn’t know…. table settings are placed with silverware starting from the left and going inside. There's so many forks and spoons and knives.”
The evening begins with hors d’oeuvres, a chance for the students to confront head-on that most awkward of social scenarios.
“You’ll typically have a drink in one hand and someone comes over with tray of pot stickers,” Padron said. “How many should I take? How do I shake people’s hands? Where do I hold it? What do I do?”
If they’re uncomfortable, that’s all right.
“I want them to be uncomfortable to get to comfort,” Padron said. “Etiquette is uncomfortableness. How you stand, bow, shake hands. You’re training yourself to act and look a different way.”
Padron prepares the students with a PowerPoint showing the right way to hold silverware (never in a fist), the right way to put peas on the fork (with a knife), how to use a napkin (in the lap, not as a bib) and how to signal servers you’re done (by placing silverware at 4 o’clock).
Arora recalls some other tips, like “BMW”: Your bowl is on the left, your meal is in the middle, and your water is on the right. (That helps keep you from inadvertently drinking from your neighbor’s glass.)
Once seated, the students are treated to a menu befitting a fancy occasion. Highlights from last year include bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, pappardelle pasta with autumn vegetables, caprese salad, sliced tenderloin with rice pilaf and lemon zest asparagus and, to top it off, a chocolate Grand Marnier cake.
Throughout the meal, Padron will walk around the room and offer commentary. His biggest peeve? When students take their phones out.
“It’s one of the things I require in the meal, that the phone is not on the table,” he said. “It’s very difficult for them. This is a three-hour meal from 5-8 pm.”
He doesn’t directly shame anyone. Instead, if he sees it, he’ll return to the podium after his rounds and say, “I saw some cellphones out. I want you to understand: That means your cellphone is more important than the people around you.”
“They want to crawl under the table when I say it,” he said.
Thomas Padron’s Tips for Excellent Etiquette:
- Toasting: Don’t clink glasses. “That’s considered rude in Europe. It’s acceptable here, but I like to use the European rules.”
- Napkins: “This is the thing that everybody does wrong. They put it on their chair. Why would you put the thing you put on your mouth and face, where you put your butt?” Instead, if you have to leave the table, place the napkin on the back of the chair or to the left side of the plate. “The key thing is folding it up. It signals the wait staff that you’re coming back.”
- When to Eat: “Nobody eats until everything is put down.”
- Elbows: The general rule is to keep elbows off the table, but some cultures and regions of the U.S. allow it. Pick up cues from your host.
- Forks: Keep your fork in your left hand. That’s the European style. Right-handed fork use has become so commonplace—even what Padron calls the “zig zag” maneuver of cutting with the right hand and then switching to the fork—that it’s permissible. But, Padron says, “My goal is, the entire meal is all European. You can’t go wrong with the European rules.”
- Conversation: Keep the conversation balanced between all guests, including everyone. Ask people’s interests; if one person goes on too much, ask others for their perspective.