Monday, October 18, 2010

The Etiquette of Thoughtfulness

Recently I had the honor of teaching a short dining etiquette class to a group of 50 senior high school students from across the province. They are participating in a leadership program designed to give them helpful tools in either continuing their educations or entering the competitive world of employment. This potentially daunting exercise turned out to be one the most exciting of my career. Dining skills in and of themselves are important to learn. They build self confidence, help you to make a good impression during a meeting or job interview, and they make the entire dining experience more pleasurable and successful.

I decided to focus on one of the most important of all dining skills during this workshop, namely conversation. How we speak to one another and what topic we choose to speak about play a significant role in determining the overall mood of the meal and even influence how well be digest the food and utilize its nutrients. One of the arts of conversation which are slipping away is that of speaking to the person seated on one side of you during the first course, and to the person on seated on your other side during the second course. I find this guideline quite restrictive if followed to the letter; however it is a very useful way to break the silence around the table and to avoid general mayhem. This can be extremely helpful with a group of people who are meeting
for the first time.

I helped the students along with this exercise by choosing a variety of inspirational words to use as topics. Each of the words was numbered from one to nine, copied onto bits of paper, folded and put into a paper bag. Everyone picked a word randomly from the bag and proceeded to the table with the number corresponding to the word, not knowing with whom they would be sitting. Each table was asked to discuss their word, albeit briefly, to help to set the mood for the meal and to help to make learning the rest of the steps of dining etiquette more enjoyable. The words included compassion, respect, self respect, harmony, and so forth. Although this exercise caught both the students and their teachers a bit by surprise, for the most part everyone participated in
and enjoyed it.

I asked each table to then have a short round table discussion during the third (dessert) course about the particular topic and to choose a leader to deliver a one minute summary of the discussion surrounding it. Clearly there had been some real thought given to the discussions and the words seemed to really come to life. Each speaker communicated what the significance of the words meant to them as a group. It is heartwarming to watch people speak about these topics cheerfully, clearly and from the heart. This was of course the point of the exercise. The best conversations to have around the dinner table are those which are uplifting and which reinforce the principles of a healthy and civil society.

The more mundane skills such as how to butter and eat a dinner roll, which water glass is yours, and how to properly hold and use a knife and fork all became easier to understand and execute. Everyone was at ease despite the fact that they were sitting with people whom they had never met and were being taught skills which they wished they should already have known.

Several days later I was discussing this process with some of my friends and one of them suggested that these kinds of discussions should take place on a regular basis, not only in schools but at home as well. Naturally I concurred. Discussing principles which guide us through our busy lives in a healthy productive way are good topics of conversation around any dinner table. Being well grounded in such topics as respect, civility and compassion is what makes a strong foundation for tomorrow's leaders. I applaud the schools for recognizing and promoting this and thank them for the honor of assisting them in their efforts.