There Ought To Be A Law–Against Bad Manners

There has been much in the news lately about the law and the appropriateness of conduct. Here is a short summary: groping people you come across during the course of a workday is illegal. That was easy. Now try this one: when hosting a business lunch, should you direct the seating or let your guests choose their own seats? If you draw the task of picking the wine for the lunch meeting but may not end up paying for it, what sort of bottle should you choose? These and other questions (that may be of small moment to celebrities who risk arrest for sexual harassment or worse but remain of considerable consequence to those very many of us who want to host a successful business lunch) were answered for me in a private session by Skype with the British etiquette consultant William Hanson.

Young, well-spoken and serious about his subject, Mr. Hanson, who appears regularly on British television, proved uniquely qualified to help guide me through these muddles of my own making. The host, he advised, should take it upon himself or herself to assign seats to the invited guests. That was comforting to hear because it is often the case that, in any group of people seated for business, there are one or two you especially want to speak with—and there may also be one or two you know would not take particularly well to speaking to each other. Mr. Hanson’s license to direct the seating was therefore gratefully accepted.

As for the wine: although many has been the time I have thumbed the wine list to survey first-growth Bordeaux bottles from triumphant years, I know better than to stick my host with a four-figure drinks tab. Mr. Hanson recommended a practice I have actually been following (to my relief): ask what everyone is having for a main course, choose an appropriate style of wine and (if needed, with the help of the sommelier) pick a bottle two or so notches up the price scale from the cheapest.

The question of who pays is an interesting one—especially when everyone is presumably on an expense account and is privately measuring the price of the meal in relation to his or her firm’s rules or expectations. One the nice things about bringing guests to your club is that the question of who pays is thereby settled. In a restaurant, Mr. Hanson advised, the host should consider setting up payment with management before the first guest arrives. Failing that, slipping away discretely before the bill comes is also an easy way to handle a sometimes-delicate situation.

There ought to be a law. That has been said so many times about things that are merely annoying, albeit consistently so. For me, there ought to be a law reprimanding any food and beverage manager who permits servers to pour water intended for tea into a coffee chafer urn—because once the urn has been permeated with coffee, the tea will taste from coffee no matter how long you let it steep. Mr. Hanson addressed my related concern: the speaker has stood up and everyone is drinking that so-so coffee or even worse tea—and returning cups onto saucers with clacks that can make the speaker feel as if he or she is addressing a room full of obedient crickets. The solution: practice doing it in silence or muzzle the fall of the cup with a paper napkin.

And finally from Mr. Hanson, a fashion tip (and one I have been giving): for those of us who wear bespoke suits: button all the sleeves—no leaving a couple open so everyone knows you have a tailor. It is obviously a good suit, and the buttons do their assigned good work when closed.

As Mr. Hanson reminded me, good etiquette is simply about putting others before ourselves. If everyone does it, everyone, in business or socially, will feel blessed.

Credit:  Alan Behr