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Missed Manners

Politeness pays.

In 1530, the philosopher Erasmus veered from his day job of instilling classical scholarship in his students to write instead about table manners. Instructing young people on the art of dining, he spouted such gems as: "Some people put their hands in the dishes the moment they [sit] down. Wolves do that." Centuries later, when we sit down to a fancy place setting or try to navigate the rules of etiquette during an important business lunch or dinner, we still seem to be afraid of becoming the big bad wolf.

Although manners may have declined in the past few decades, lately there's been renewed interest in propriety and protocol, especially in the business realm. Rosanne Thomas sees a steadily increasing influx of clients--mostly young future executives sent by their employers--at her Boston company, Protocol Advisors Inc., which provides etiquette and protocol training to both individuals and companies.

When Anthony Soltis needed help acquiring a professional polish, he sought out Thomas for her etiquette expertise. "I was the first in my family to graduate from college," explains Soltis, a product manager at New England Biolabs in Beverly, Massachusetts. "My parents didn't know how to act in business; it wasn't something they had to deal with. I discovered it isn't enough to be friendly and polite. Other things have to go along with that to present yourself effectively."

"There used to be a time when technical skills [alone] could distinguish you from your competitor," says Thomas. "Today, technical expertise is assumed, and what distinguishes you [from the competition] is how well you present yourself [and your business], and how well you relate to the person on the other side of the desk."

Thanks to Thomas' Erasmus-like instruction, Soltis got a grip on such crucial concepts as handling introductions ("It really is based on hierarchy") and starting conversations in a business setting. ("Think of a word beginning with `A' and talk about that. If the other person doesn't want to talk about that topic, go to `B', and so on.")

Conversational skills are a common stumbling block for businesspeople, agrees Thomas. However, she believes the most egregious errors occur around the table at business-related lunches and dinners. "I've seen people chewing with their mouths open, using their fingers to push food around on the plate, using the napkin as a handkerchief and brushing their hair at the table," she says. "Taking cell phone calls in a restaurant is another big [blunder] that happens all the time."

If just reading about such faux pas inspires recurring nightmares about misplaced salad forks, limp handshakes, agonizingly awkward silences and other potential business-busters, take solace: "Being too rigid isn't polite, either. There is flexibility within the rules," says Thomas. "Etiquette is based on respect for yourself and the other person. [Rules] are just ways to show that respect."

Find etiquette courses in the Yellow Pages under Schools or Motivational & Self-Improvement Training, or practice politeness at home with books like At Ease Professionally by Hilka Klinkenberg (Bonus Books, $18.95, 800-225-3775) or Essential Business Etiquette by Lou Kennedy (Palmetto Publishing, $10.95, 512-884-3376).

Do your manners need mending? Take Thomas' advice: "If you're not sure [how to act], you're less confident. [Knowing how to behave] frees you up to concentrate on business."

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