The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University George Mason University

Mind Your Peas and Cues

Students and alumni learn the rigors of business dining and etiquette

By Jennifer Mitchell

It's probably rude to take notes during dinner, especially when the dinner's purpose is to teach manners, but I did it anyway at an etiquette dinner organized by the Student Alumni Chapter (SAC) last fall. The event was designed to help students learn the skills they need to conduct themselves with grace at a business dinner or interview. Sponsored by GEICO, the dinner was one of many events held on campus that allow students to benefit from Mason alumni's career and life skills.

Feeling out of place after arriving at George's Restaurant in the Johnson Center, I sidled up to Rose Tajvidi, BS Marketing '85 and an Alumni Association director-at-large, who greeted me warmly.

"I do these dinners a lot," Tajvidi said. "They really help the students—many of whom have never been in a situation like this—learn how to handle themselves." In fact, she told me she was attending another dinner the following Saturday for the basketball team.

Other alumni on hand for the evening were Kristie Woodside, BS Administration of Justice '98 and a GEICO representative; Alumni Association president Cathy Lemmon, BA Communication '86, MA English '93; Gus Gloe, BS Business Administration '82, who works at Cisco Systems; Alumni Association director-at-large Patrick King, BA Government and Politics '89; and Brian Van de Graaf, BA Communication '97, a meteorologist for WJLA Channel 7.

Darren Fabian, the catering director for Sodexho, ran the show that night. He began conducting etiquette dinners when he joined Mason more than three years ago and now presents dinners about five times a year.

"This is a fun class," says Fabian. "It's really about relaxing and learning something. I had never done this kind of thing before, but when someone inquired about having an etiquette class, I was happy to help."

"I wanted to create something that was fun and exciting. I didn't want to just stand and lecture. People are always quiet at first, but then they relax and start asking a lot of questions."

He used notes left by the previous catering general manager and bought a lot of books on the subject. "I wanted to create something that was fun and exciting. I didn't want to just stand and lecture. People are always quiet at first, but then they relax and start asking a lot of questions."

When Fabian asked attendees to set the tables, I realized this was no ordinary dinner. After watching the group do a somewhat adequate, though incorrect, job, Fabian went from table to table explaining the correct way to set a place and how the food servers would deliver the food and clear the dirty dishes.

While handing out a quiz of 23 true-and-false statements on etiquette, Fabian asked what five topics should never be discussed. Surprisingly, we guessed them all: politics, religion, sexuality, income, and age.

We took our quizzes as the salads were served. Here are a few questions that I got wrong: It's ok to drink soup served from a cup: true. Put your napkin in your lap when you are first seated at a restaurant: true. (I thought you waited until the food was served.) Gentlemen should still make a point of opening the door for women in a professional setting: false—to the shock of many of the ladies present.

"This isn't a date," says Fabian. "It's business."

There was one statement on the quiz that almost everyone in the room answered incorrectly: "You are a nondrinker. When a toast is being made, it is okay to raise your water glass." Sure, right? Wrong.

"You raise your empty wine glass," says Fabian. "To raise your water glass actually means you disapprove of the toast."

While attendees were served their entrees, Fabian went through the nitty-gritty of etiquette rules: what to do if there's something between your teeth, what to do if there's a hair on your plate, where to place your knife, how to eat pasta, how to eat bacon, and how to eat bread. And while we are on the subject of eating, Fabian said that we shouldn't.

"You're not here to eat and drink," he said. "You're here to conduct business. I don't care if you have to stop at McDonald's on your way home—don't pig out!"

Fabian stressed one important point throughout the evening: do not call attention to yourself. "You want to be assertive, but not showy. Practice discretion at all times. If something happens, excuse yourself quietly. You don't want to stand out, especially if you're low on the totem pole."

"The dinner was a big success!" says Tanner Young, SAC membership chair. She says she will help plan another etiquette dinner next year, as well as lots of other opportunities for students and alumni to interact.

For more information about SAC and the etiquette dinners, visit

Jennifer Mitchell is a senior majoring in English and will graduate in May.