Friday, March 6, 2009

Things not to do with your mouth in a meeting

The young man was lounging on a park bench, arms stretched out across the top. As I walked by, he opened his mouth and enjoyed a huge yawn right in my face. Was this guy being intentionally crude, or was he just plain ignorant? My reaction: disgust and annoyance. My opinion of that young man: rather low. All I knew of him was how his tongue and teeth looked, but his manner of showing them to me convinced me he was a rude, uneducated person.

These days, unfortunately, companies and grad schools have had to begin training their people how to act civilly and politely in meetings and elsewhere. Gone are the days when training films titled "How to Have a Family Dinner" (possibly made here in KC by Calvin Films, where Robert Altman got his start) advised adults and children not to put their elbows on the table and to refrain from unpleasant or controversial conversational topics while dining. More's the pity.

The problem is that Americans scorn rules that inhibit their natural behavior. Why the heck should I have to cover my mouth when I yawn (or cough or sneeze)? Why shouldn't I put my elbows on the table? In the first case, because nobody wants a view of your uvula and whatever else is in your mouth. In the second, because it gives the impression that you are an inconsiderate bumpkin. There are historical reasons, and also modern ones, for these rules of etiquette.

As Paula Williams says on the Ravenwerks website, etiquette is more than just selecting the right fork to eat the salad. "Being relaxed, friendly and considerate is what etiquette is all about."

The "considerate" part is a good one to take to heart. If you are considerate of other people's sensitivities, you probably won't remove a gob of gristly meat from your mouth and place it on the edge of your plate without shielding your activities with your napkin. You won't pick your teeth at the table. You won't gulp your water with audible "glugs." You won't talk over another table companion or start an argument that might upset digestive processes.

As an alternative to purchasing an etiquette book, if we all can keep "consideration" top of mind, we won't go far wrong. If you feel insecure about what to do and not to do in public, there are many etiquette resources at the bookstore, library, or on the Web. You may discover interesting sidelights, such as this: the reason knives are set on the table with their blades toward the plate is that in this way, ancient diners let their companions know they did not mean to stab them to death. Oh, by the way, stabbing dinner partners is considered poor form. But you knew that.

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