- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

WAYNE, Neb. (AP) - Jason Barelman, director of career services at Wayne State College, likes to joke with students that, hopefully, their dinner etiquette consists of more than just throwing a fast-food bag out their car window.

If it doesn’t, she’s there to help.

The college’s career services department has hosted an etiquette dinner every year since the late 1990s, the Norfolk Daily News (https://bit.ly/2myuj3W ) reported. It’s a chance for students to prepare for both social and business settings that may require certain etiquette that everyday life doesn’t.

“It’s going through, ‘Do you know what to expect, do you know the protocol, do you know how to make others feel comfortable around you?’ ” Barelman said. “That’s really what etiquette is - making other people around you feel comfortable.”

For many students, the skills touched on during the dinner may be ones they’ve never been exposed to.

Carol Erwin, who teaches family and consumer science courses at Wayne, attributes that - at least partially - to the informal culture of our society.

If you go back to the early 1900s, she said, people were taught etiquette as a way to move up the social ladder. People dressed up for dinner and church services. Overall, things were more formal.

Now, students know basic manners, such as “keep your elbows off the table.” But it’s the more refined skills, like how to arrange a formal place setting, that they may not be familiar with, she said.

“Truth is, we have an expectation that the knife goes here and the fork goes here. The salad fork goes on the outside,” said Erwin, who touches briefly on etiquette during her Meal Management class. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s hard to know that you don’t know it until you’re put in that situation where it’s in your face.”

That’s where the etiquette dinner and Erwin’s class come in handy.

For example, the etiquette dinner takes participants through “mocktails” where they learn the basics of how to introduce themselves, how to introduce others, how to shake hands properly, and what side their name tag goes on. (It’s the right.)

They even learn tricks for how to hold their plate, napkin and drink in one hand so they can properly greet people. Christina Fielder, who presents at the dinner and a similar event that Northeast Community College holds, said this is sometimes what students are most impressed with.

Then students will participate in a formal dinner - typically four courses -where they learn tips and tricks for dealing with each course, Fielder said.

“If I was going to be really honest, for college students we focus on the basics, helping them get comfortable and helping other people around them get comfortable. It’s just really the nuts and bolts,” said Fielder, director of advising for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Arts and Sciences. She began giving these presentations while she worked in UNL’s Career Services Department.

Her goal at the end of the night? For students to know how to act if they attend a fancy wedding or are asked to network at a formal event or do a job interview over dinner.

During a portion of Erwin’s meal management class - which is a required for early childhood education, food and nutrition, family and consumer science, and family and consumer science education majors - students must make breakfast, lunch and dinner in addition to setting the table for each meal. They are then expected to sit down, converse and enjoy the meal with the other students.

While this exercise has multiple purposes, Erwin said it can help students learn what she calls “unwritten rules.”

“When you don’t know the rules and it seems like everyone else does, it can be very, very uncomfortable,” she said.

So, how are people supposed to learn these rules?

At home with your family is a good place to start, Erwin said. But given that every family is different, young people might not have that opportunity.

Some students may be used to eating on TV trays at the couch for meals. Others may have eaten with their family at the dining room or kitchen table, but it was informal.

“Most don’t set the table unless it’s a special occasion,” Erwin said. “One person will say that at Christmas my grandma does the whole shebang. She’ll set a whole long table. Then another person will say, ‘Well, at my grandma’s we just use paper plates so we don’t have to do dishes.”

But it’s not just young people who could use etiquette lessons either, Barelman said. There are several generations that could use a brush-up given that the need for etiquette is lacking in day-to-day life.

Even Fielder, who grew up with her family hosting social events because her father was a former Wayne State president, said she didn’t truly learn etiquette until she was exposed to it as a student ambassador to the chancellor at the college she attended.

She took to it, though, and enjoys being able to share the knowledge.

“My favorite part is demystifying it,” Fielder said. “They come in very fearful and not sure what I’m going to ask of them. But they leave feeling relaxed and comfortable.”

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Information from: Norfolk Daily News, https://www.norfolkdailynews.com

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