Date With a Manners Maven

Reporter's etiquette is on the table when taking Letitia Baldrige to dine

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tonight I have a dinner date with a sophisticated older woman - who will be grading me on my manners.

She is Letitia Baldrige, former White House social secretary to Jackie Kennedy; author of 14 books on etiquette, and a maven of American manners.

Her latest book, "In the Kennedy Style" (Doubleday, $29.95), gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Kennedy White House entertaining.

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Understandably, I'm shaking in my worn (but impeccably polished) Oxford saddle shoes. And my dear mother's endless lectures on manners are racing through my head. "Now, John Boy, keep your elbows off the table. Stop slouching. Don't talk with your mouth full. And don't ever order corn on the cob at a nice restaurant."

As Mrs. Baldrige steps from the elevator, I can't help wondering how many times I will unknowingly offend. You see, like any good Southern boy, I was taught the importance of good manners. I just forgot them when I went to college north of the Mason-Dixon line.

While exchanging salutations with Mrs. Baldrige, I get lesson No. 1. "When shaking hands, the man always waits for the woman to extend her hand first," she says, in response to my first question.

"Will Chez McDonald's be all right this evening? I hear their four-course Happy Meal is exquisite," I ask politely, with a straight face.

After a pause that seems to stretch into eternity, she smiles and laughs. "Humor always breaks the ice," she says, sensing my nervousness and quickly putting me at ease.

"So, you want to talk about manners?" she asks rhetorically. "Good manners are almost nonexistent in our society. We've forgotten basic table manners. We're rude to each other. We don't communicate well. It's like we've developed an 'I don't care attitude.' People don't care how they represent themselves."

She and I stroll into a restaurant in one of Boston's finest hotels - she looks as regal as a queen and I feel as humble as Jethro from the "Beverly Hillbillies" - I realize that I better take good notes, not only for this story but for my own benefit.

"People think manners are elitist. They simply aren't," says Mrs. Baldrige, as our waitress escorts us to a cozy booth in the corner. "Etiquette is a code of behavior that helps people get along with one another. It's 50 percent common sense and 50 percent thinking about someone else."

Mrs. Baldrige believes that good manners went out of style during the 1960s - "Customs were turned upside down back then." However, she insists, they're making a comeback. "I'm seeing some encouraging things. Young people like you are becoming more and more interested in etiquette. They are realizing that manners are not something to scoff at, but a useful tool - especially in the workplace."

As she slices into her porterhouse steak, I offer her a taste of my sun-dried tomato pasta, hoping she will reciprocate. She declines my generous offer, but I land a large, juicy hunk of her steak.

Delicious!

Oh no, I realize that I'm not using my knife and fork properly. I'm clutching them tightly, stabbing at my food rather than holding them easily. Mrs. Baldrige notices, too.

"Don't worry about the fine points of etiquette," she comforts me, hesitant to correct. "The important thing is to be polite at all times. If you are, people don't notice if you break the little rules - there are so many, you know."

So, what about the fine points of table etiquette? Most young men straight out of college don't know these things.

Which way do you pass food at the table? Should you pass the salt without the pepper? Where do you put your napkin when you leave the table? How do you squeeze a lemon without squirting Aunt Lisa in the eye? Must you stand when a woman enters the room?

As it turns out, you should always pass food to the right, except when the person to your immediate left wants something. The salt and pepper travel together. When you leave the table, put your napkin on your chair. If you are finished, set the napkin on the table in an orderly fashion, but not neatly folded. When squeezing a lemon, use your other hand as a shield. And finally, stand up anytime a woman (or man) enters the room.

So is it appropriate to inform people when they are making a faux pas? "Unless it's your own child, never," she says nibbling delicately on her spinach. "For instance, if a hostess is having a dinner party and a guest is picking his teeth with a toothpick at the dinner table, she would be wise to keep her mouth shut. Correcting a guest's table manners is a heinous offense."

As the brownie a la mode catches my eye on the dessert tray, I realize that all civilized people have good manners. I learned a lot in college, but not that.

So did I pass? I'm so pleased you asked.

"Well, John, I'm pleased to say that for a young man fresh out of college, you have very good manners," she says as our waitress slips us the check. "You should go home right now and call your mother and thank her."

Letitia Baldrige on whistling at work

"Nothing gets on other people's nerves at the office more than a whistler. And the sad part is, these whistlers don't know they're doing it. Someone should, tactfully, tell the whistler how much it disrupts the office environment."

On blue jeans

"Jeans of any sort should not be worn in nice restaurants. They pollute the landscape. They should also not be worn in the workplace if no other workers wear them. However, if your office is casual, go for it. Jeans should never be worn to someone's home if you are having dinner there."

On baseball caps

"It's like they have become part of some people's skin. People wear them in fine restaurants, in church, and unfortunately in people's homes, which is very inappropriate and insulting. "

On making phone calls in the evening

"If you're calling on business, don't. If you're making a social call, don't call past 8 p.m. The evening is a time when people need a respite from their work - a time to unwind, uninterrupted. It's usually divorced or single people who don't have families that call. This is rude."

On cell phones

"Cell phones are misused.... The worst are the people who talk and drive. Whom are they trying to impress? It's dangerous to be talking on the phone while driving. Don't get me wrong, cell phones are great to have in emergencies, but they are abused."

* If you have questions on etiquette or pet peeves about manners, e-mail John Hoyle at hoylej@csps.com

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