By From the Lowell Sun
By DAVID PERRY
When Rosanne Thomas was growing up, dinner was a practical matter, laced with little lessons of respect and basic decencies. She was one of six kids in a family that dined together.
Her mom was a schoolteacher. Her father, a Naval officer, used to joke that there was once a seventh child, "but he died of politeness. Starved to death."
Now, Thomas works with UMass Lowell students, teaching them, well, politeness.
She recently schooled 96 students in her three-hour "Dining and Dressing for Success" session.
The kids, many of whom have donned suits for the occasion, stare back at her.
The shiny dinner plates and array of utensils glinting up at them? They are yours to conquer, she says.
It could be their edge as they venture into the corporate world.
"Today," she tells her students, many of whom donned suits for the session, "expertise is assumed. What distinguishes you from the competition is how well you present yourself."
The fork. The napkin. The handshake.
She teaches those things.
Seven years ago, Thomas, a tall, slender woman with a graceful stride and warm manner, first visited UMass Lowell. Her Protocol Advisors Inc. of Boston was 3 years old, and she was amassing clients. About 40 students showed up for a four-course, sit-down dinner at a small room in Fox Hall. Thomas eased them through it.
This most recent session, there was a waiting list of 45 and a PowerPoint presentation. Six corporate sponsors, from Raytheon to Hertz.
"There's a buzz about this now," says Patricia Yates, director of Career Services for UMass Lowell. "This is her seventh year, and Rosanne presents a subject that can be threatening in a very engaging way. And the students are self-selected in a way. They've identified they have a need for this."
Thomas spent 11 years working for Tiffany & Co., the jeweler, in the corporate-sales division. Clients would ask advice. What's the proper gift for a Japanese client? Is this correct? How about this?
Recognizing a need for what she knew, she ventured out to help the confused corporate masses.
She heard something else again and again: "Forget that, Americans don't know the basics of eating dinner."
Thomas became a certified etiquette and protocol consultant. She studied the masters -- Emily Post, Judith Martin, Letitia Baldrige -- and set up shop.
She has dozens of clients across the country now. Businesses, universities. The Harvard Club, where people bring their young children.
"The way you look, stand, dress, speak. Those things tell people something about you," Thomas tells the students gathered in Cumnock Hall. "And be it fair or not, people are making judgments about you based on those things."
To illustrate her point, she shows her students a quote from a Fortune 500 CEO who wonders, if a job prospect can't negotiate the place setting before them, "what else did they skip learning?"
She walks them through the meal, stressing that in terms of a business meal or interview, it is not about the food.
"Business and the development of that relationship is the focus," she says.
She tells them of obscure rules (the world of fingerbowls), and the most obvious: "Never blow your nose in your dinner napkin."
"Conversation is the most critical thing," she tells them. "What are some things you should never talk about?"
"Never talk about religion, politics, personal health, family, money. Nothing depressing. No gossip or rumor. So what's left?"
"There's art, music, books, travel, cars, dogs and current events that aren't controversial."
Eleanor Roosevelt, says Thomas, "used to go through the alphabet. She'd start with 'a.' 'Are you an art enthusiast? Do you like baseball?' And she never reached 'e' or 'f' without getting something going."
She discusses non-verbal clues. She flashes a picture on the screen of a lusty-looking blonde in a low-cut top.
Within three to five seconds, she says, people form a first impression.
"There is no way to recover when you are late for an interview, even with a very valid excuse."
She quotes Oscar Wilde in closing: "The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork."
"Go forward," she urges, "and use the right fork."
David Perry's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Etiquette and protocol consultant Rosanne Thomas offers the following tips for surviving a business lunch/interview:
"If something drops on the floor, leave it there."
HOLD THE PHONE
"Do not take your cellphone to lunch or an interview."
"At lunch, never accept a cocktail and if it's dinner, wine is OK. But when in doubt, do not accept an offer of a cocktail."
CAN'T EAT IT?
"It comes out of your mouth the way it went in. If it went in on a fork, it comes out on one."
"If the fork and knife are crossed it tells the server 'I am resting,' not finished. The fork and knife laid alongside one another at a 10-4 o'clock position tells the server, 'I am finished.'"
More tips on Page XX
Surviving a business lunch/interview
More tips from etiquette and protocol consultant Rosanne Thomas.
WHAT TO DO IF:
You have to leave the table: "Place your napkin neatly on your chair. Leaving it to the left side of your plate signals you are not returning."
Someone toasts you: "The guest always reciprocates by toasting his host. Toasts should be well-thought out, sincere and brief."
You're the host: Let the server know, make sure all the guests feel welcome, and handle any complaints.
You're eating soup: "Spoon your soup away from you. And bring the soup to you, don't go to the soup."
You want bread: "Don't reach across the table ...wait until it is passed to you. ... Tear off one bite-sized piece, butter it and eat that piece before going on to the next."
You're served before others: "Wait to begin eating until the host has lifted his or her fork."
Everyone's finished but you: "If no one is left eating but you, you are done."
You need to cough : "Turn your head to the right, cough over your shoulder in the direction of the floor."
Some spinach or something is caught in a fellow diner's teeth: "You'd want to know, wouldn't you? As unobtrusively as possible, try to let them know, non-verbally. Maybe point to your tooth. They will be forever grateful to you."