Monday, December 31, 2012

A Bid for Civility

Auctions have been a part of my life for 35 years. After graduating in 1973 from Colorado College as an art history major, I landed a job at Sotheby’s in New York where they needed a preppy proofreader. What a great four years I spent there, learning enough about the art world to launch my own successful fine art and appraisal company. One of my jobs there was being an auctioneer, and I loved it.

Auction rooms are made up of different groups of people. There is the auction house staff, which includes the auctioneer (who is the person who has control of the entire process), various record keepers, telephone bid staff, and people who physically move the items which are being offered for sale. There are also the buyers, a varied group made up of dealers (who may be buying for their own shops or inventory, or who may be buying as agent for a private individual, institution or museum.
Auctions are very fast paced and there are certain protocols and etiquette which can make an auction run smoothly and make the experience of the buyer more enjoyable. I know for myself, that when I am bidding on an item, my adrenalin gets pumped up – the force is with me. My advice to anyone who is planning to buy something at the auction is to be sure to carefully examine the item before the sale. Ask any questions pertaining to condition, provenance, and possible reserve price and estimated value of the auction house staff. In other words, know what you’re bidding on.

In many auction rooms, you will be required to register for a ‘number’ - a bidding card identifying you to the auctioneer when bidding. You may want to get there early so as to ensure getting a seat for the sale, which can last many hours. At Tim Isaac’s Auctions here in Saint John, you can call ahead to reserve a seat if you are known to him. I always like sitting towards the front of the room for most of the sale, but often times move to the back and stand up while bidding. When bidding, make sure you hold the number clearly for the auctioneer to see. Auctioneers are not psychics and blinks and nods can often go unnoticed and your bid may be missed. Do not talk in a loud voice during the auction and do not have your cell phone turned onto ‘ring’. If you must take a call, leave the room or speak in a hushed voice as this is distracting and disrespectful to others.
Remember too that the auctioneer has the final say as to who the successful bidder is. Any disputes should be handled immediately. If you cannot attend the sale, you have a few options. You can ask a friend to bid on your behalf in person; you can leave a bid with the auction house staff; or you can arrange to have the ‘phone bank’ call you just before your item is coming up for sale allowing you to bid over the phone. Telephone bidding is a great way of handling this if you can arrange it. Be sure you have a clear idea how much you are willing to spend beforehand and bid quickly, because if you hesitate too long, the item may well be sold to someone else.
There is most likely a conspicuous sign outlining the conditions of sale posted in the auction room or printed in your catalog. Familiarize yourself with these as they vary from one auction house to another. For example, at Tim Isaac’s sales there is no buyer’s premium. At most other houses there is one, meaning that the final sale price is greater than the actual hammer price by sometimes as much as 20%.
If you are buying a ‘box’ lot - a variety of items sold together in a box, be sure to examine the contents carefully, and do not repack the boxes to your liking. Others may well have examined the contents of the boxes and are placing bids according to what they saw. Unfortunately it happens all too frequently that someone will take a certain item they want and bury in under a bunch of linens, trying to hide it so they can buy it for a song. This is like shoplifting and is in fact stealing from the consignor of the property.

The best way for the bidder to learn about auctions, auction rules, and auction etiquette is to attend auctions regularly. Feel free to ask seasoned auction goers about bidding, removing of property you buy and any other myriad of questions which can arise. The auction house staff is also well versed in all aspects of the auction and is most helpful. Going to your first auction can be an intimidating experience. Go with a friend; plan to go to the exhibition ahead of time and stay for as much as you have time for. You will learn to enjoy these outings and may even pick up a bargain or two along the way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Building a Gentleman's Wardrobe - Part 1

Building a wardrobe that spells success is an obvious challenge for most men today. The subtle art of making a good first impression depends to a large degree on how one dresses. Why this sartorial skill has all but disappeared is puzzling. Let’s have a look at where to begin building a reliable and affordable wardrobe that you can feel confident represents you and your company in a professional light.

A professional businessman should wear a dark suit, either gray or navy blue. Black is a color to avoid, as it is too severe and usually reserved for formal occasions or funerals. Brown is a color best worn in the country and is considered informal. Off the rack suits generally hang sloppily and need altering. One can use a local drycleaner for some basic alterations, but nothing beats the eye of a seasoned tailor to know how to make a suit fit properly. Buying a suit at a high end men’s shop will cost you a bit more, but is well worth the investment. The ultimate suit is made-to-order and can cost upwards of $2000, again worth every penny. Nothing states confidence or feels better than a beautifully tailored suit. A top end men’s haberdasher generally has much finer materials to choose from and is a relationship that will pay you untold dividends.
Note: a top tailor will ask what you normally carry in your pockets and fit you accordingly. No one should have bulging or jingling pockets.

A clean fresh white shirt is appropriate for any businessperson. Dressing for success leads to success. Shirts should be cotton, not polyester and should have a pointed collar, either button down or plain. To decide which is best for you is trial and error. One’s personal style depends to a large extent on one’s body style and facial shape and on one’s taste. If you don’t claim a particular style yet, rely on the advice of a style and image consultant. A good clothier can also come to your rescue! I avoid colored shirts for formal business situations as they are less formal

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Ready or not, it's that time of year again when we pop that oversized turkey into the oven and hope for the best and that it's moist and delicious! Perhaps it's time to shine the silver and polish the wine glasses reserved for special occasions. It is most certainly a time for families to get together and give thanks for the bounty provided by the good earth and for the many blessings of our lives. Although gratitude is an expression of thanks which we hopefully develop as a habit, even in our busy lives, Thanksgiving Day has rituals and customs which are special. For one thing, it is a time when families and close friends gather to share in a feast. In many cases, guests are asked to help out by either providing a part of the meal, such as a vegetable dish, a dessert, an hors d'oeuvres or even by performing a task such as carving the turkey.

I am often asked to carve the bird or roast wherever I go for reasons, which still elude me. I imagine if a host is not acquainted with carving it will be left to someone like me or another guest. And there are those times when speed and precision do come in handy if the host is not adept at carving. Perhaps the art of carving which is an intricate part of the Thanksgiving holiday and a tradition ought to be part of an etiquette lesson. As with any skill, if it is taught properly and practiced it will make a perfect addition to any holiday. Whoever is carving, be sure that there is a sharp knife available and all the other tools necessary to make carving and serving the all-important bird on Thanksgiving. There are many ways of carving just as there are many recipes for cooking the perfect turkey. All methods work when executed properly.
This celebration comes at the end of the fall harvest. This year's bounty was especially plentiful and therefore there is a lot for which to be thankful. Expressing our thanks is an important tradition to pass on to our children and grandchildren. Instilling the virtues of feeling thanks and giving thanks are customs which permeate human societies everywhere. It is what makes societies healthy and able to thrive.
In the seemingly busy lives which we lead, sometimes we not only forget to give thanks but we also are guilty of not feeling gratitude in the first place. Such occasions as Thanksgiving afford us the opportunity to take the time to both feel and express our gratitude for the lives with which we are blessed. Perhaps focusing on only that for which are grateful gives us a chance to see some of our hardships and challenges as opportunities. Even family squabbles can be put into perspective and viewed in a different light if we were to stop and count our blessings of even having a family with whom to celebrate in the first place.
As I have discussed in previous columns, I am not a fan of putting people on the spot at the dinner table. However, there is no better place for people to be given the opportunity to express what they are feeling thankful for than at the table. If offered as a voluntary chance to speak, those who are in the mood and feel so moved can show others how easy it is, and by their example encourage more shy people to at least consider giving it a try. Who knows, with any luck, one day everyone sitting around the table will feel not only grateful but moved to express their feelings.
Of all meals, the Thanksgiving dinner is one where almost all of us stop to give thanks to the source of all of our bounty, no matter what that source may be. We give thanks for the food, our shelter, our health, the many opportunities set before us and our friendships and love for our families, friends, neighbors and others who make our lives complete.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I hope the gratitude we feel at this time of year is expressed freely and continues throughout this and every year!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Eating Difficult Foods: Artichokes and Spare Ribs

Continuing from last week's blog on eating difficult foods, this week let's focus on artichokes and spare ribs!

Artichokes are a fantastic multipurpose food. You can serve them hot with some melted lemon butter; you can serve them cold with a little vinaigrette; or you can buy artichoke hearts in a can and use them in salads or delicious Italian dishes. The difficulty arises when we face an entire artichoke for the first time. Once we make the decision to give it a try, it is actually a very simple matter. The leaves peel off one or two at a time, and your teeth scrape off the tender meat about half way down to the bottom of the leaf. A little practice and you’re hooked. Once most of the leaves are neatly stacked along the side of your plate, you need to remove the prickly inedible choke. Simply insert a sharp knife at a downward angle rotating it around the top of the heart and lift it off and discard. The tender heart can then be eaten easily. To kick artichokes up a notch, serve them hot with Hollandaise sauce.

Barbequed spare ribs are best eaten outdoors at a picnic using your hands and lots or napkins or hand wipes. Occasionally we decide that eating ribs in February indoors by a crackling fire is just what we need. Ribs can be successfully eaten with a fork and knife. After most of the meat has been consumed, it is perfectly acceptable to pick up the bones, which are so finger lickin’ good. This is also true for lamb chops, but not for pork chops or chicken.

This kind of meal provides an opportunity to blend the centuries because what could come in handier than a good old finger bowl? If you do use a finger bowl, dip in the fingers of one hand a time, drying your fingers with your napkin with the minimum of movement. If you need to have a good hand wash, excuse yourself and go to the washroom to wash your hands thoroughly.

With a little practice these methods will quickly become second nature. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Eating Difficult Foods: Spaghetti and Peas

Facing a dinner plate filled with unfamiliar foods can be unnerving especially during a formal dinner or business lunch.  Equally challenging are those foods we eat frequently but are known to squirt, spray, or splatter. Knowing how to eat these difficult foods can really make all the difference between having a miserable time or a fabulous one.

Seldom are we faced with peeling an orange using only a fork and knife, a skill that can be quickly acquired with a bit of practice. But we do encounter other foods that can be challenging. Today I address spaghetti and peas.

When eating spaghetti, unless you are a child, do not cut the pasta. Likewise, do not snap it in half before cooking it. This delightful food is meant to be twirled. Though some people will correctly argue that Italians would never twirl spaghetti on a spoon, it is a method used widely especially in North America. Capturing a few strands with your fork tines and twirling them near the inner rim of your plate also ensures a safe journey to the mouth. If the spaghetti is in a broth like sauce, no one should wince if you use a spoon for twirling. The objective is to avoid splattering yourself or your neighbors.

Peas roll. They can seem to come alive on your plate and roll around as if to escape capture. Similar to not cutting your spaghetti, do not mash your peas on your plate. There are other far less barbaric and successful methods. Spearing for example is perfectly acceptable. Incorporating peas with other foods simultaneously on your fork is always helpful. Americans though can mount quite a pile on their forks with the aid of either a knife or small piece of bread, a wonderful edible pusher. I find they attach handily to mashed potatoes or almost anything with a bit of sauce. Do not fall prey to the practical trap of using a spoon to eat peas, unless you are a small child.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Etiquette of Listening

When someone is talking to us, we should make an effort to listen to what he or she is saying. It’s only polite. Whenever we have something to say, we certainly want people to listen; otherwise why bother?

The art of listening can be complicated even though it may seem to only require one’s ears and attentive mind. There are many advantages to mastering this skill. For one thing, what others say can reveal, inform and educate us about news, opinions, and facts. Sometimes what is being said is important and we want to hear every word. Many times it can be boring or useless information. But out of politeness and good manners, we must try our hardest to pay attention.

Large gatherings can present challenges to listening. The noise levels can reach a fever pitch making it practically impossible to hear another person speaking. This puts listening at a great disadvantage. Large groups tend to evolve into many small groups rather quickly helping us to be able to focus on those near at hand. In these situations, speak clearly and look directly at the person to whom you are speaking. This helps you gauge levels of comprehension and interest. When listening, look at the person’s lips a well as eyes. I am amazed how well so many people can lip read when pressed.

Avoid looking over the shoulder of someone who is speaking to you. Distractions of others entering the room are inevitable, but averting one’s eyes from the speaker to catch a glimpse of something or someone who may be more interesting is simply rude. We all know what it feels like to suddenly be left speaking to someone who has completely disengaged from the conversation. We don’t like being ignored or displaced, so why do it to others?

Lectures can be particularly difficult to hold one’s attention for too long unless the subject is gripping or the speaker is captivating. If our attention wanders off in a daydream, it might be just when some brilliant concept is clearly explained, falling on deaf ears. Before going to a talk, especially in the evening after dinner when falling asleep is easy, I make sure I have something to write on or record so I can take a few notes. When paying close enough attention to take notes, missing key points is less likely. Great information, often unrelated to the main topic, emerges almost as a bonus!

Remembering what people have said when one is distracted is practically impossible. Although we can actually hear more than one conversation at a time, we really only listen to one at a time, missing out on the others. This can happen with peoples’ names, important dates, or major talking points. When this happens, refocus on one conversation and let go of other distractions. In casual conversations this is less critical than it is in a business setting. However, when vital information slips one’s mind, the best way to handle the situation is to ask for it to be repeated. Being honest with colleagues instills trust. We all become distracted from time to time. 

People come to us in times of need, when there may be some acute stress in their lives. Often times, they may want an opportunity to vent or express their emotions. Sometimes they are looking for answers or guidance. By listening to them carefully, we can discern what they are really looking for and act accordingly.

Interacting socially occurs in one’s business life as well as one’s personal life. Navigating social mores can be daunting to anyone slightly shy. Talking about one’s own life can be one manner of coping; however, good manners and etiquette are about putting others first. Resist speaking only about yourself and your experiences, and ask questions of others about their lives and opinions. 

A good rule of thumb is to notice when we are talking about ourselves or when we become too intense about any subject. Try shifting the emphasis over to what is interesting to the other person, which gives you a chance to make sure they are as interested in the matter at hand as you are. 

Don’t repeat what someone has just said as a way of indicating you understood what was spoken. This interrupts the person speaking. Occasionally this may be appropriate, but is not a good practice. Many of us develop speech patterns, and listening patterns, too! Repeating conversations is akin to interrupting. By carefully listening to what someone is saying we not only demonstrate respect, we might learn something, too!