When you least expect it, you might need to recognize - and correctly use - a shrimp fork, a strawberry fork or a pickle fork.
And if that happens when you're a student being wined and dined as part of a job interview, how at ease you are with your table setting can leave an impression on those deciding your future.
It's just one example of the tools students need in their toolboxes to complement their leadership skills and abilities, says Dr. Mitzi Norris, an associate professor and leadership teacher in the School of Health Related Professions.
“Leaders need certain knowledge and competencies, but to be the most effective, a well-rounded leader needs some social skills,” Norris said. “Students face high stakes during interviews, and they need to be comfortable when they are taken out to dinner. I do think you're at a disadvantage in some work situations if you don't adhere to social norms.”
Norris is quick to point out that she's not Miss Manners. But, she cares deeply about her students, and is passionate about helping them adopt good habits and networking skills that will serve them well during interviews and beyond.
She's spent years building that framework, from collecting interesting flatware at estate sales and flea markets to accumulating sets of china that include the trickier pieces that are a mystery to most students. “I do have a lot of dishes, and strawberry forks, ice cream forks, the things nobody knows about. But I don't have a hooded asparagus,” she joked.
Students can quickly learn they should work from the outside toward the inside when using flatware, their bread and salad plates, and their drink glasses, Norris said. As they dine, they should be pleasant to those around them and strive to make them comfortable, she said.
With her students, Norris has cited examples from “Pretty Woman,” the romantic comedy in which star Julia Roberts plays a prostitute who escorts a wealthy client to a high-power business dinner. Roberts' character first gets an urgent lesson in how to maneuver a table setting from the manager of the hotel where she's staying with her client, but ends up bungling the use of tongs to open snails.
She's also cited the excruciatingly correct table manners employed in the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” but says today's diners don't need to worry about such perfection. “Good manners are more about the individual making others feel comfortable around them,” she said. “If you put your elbows on the table, it doesn't offend me.”