“When I first walked into the room, I didn’t know what to expect — everyone was very tense,” remembers Bennett Zink ’19, an Art Education major from Iberia, Mo.
No, Zink is not talking about giving a class presentation or taking a final exam. He is recalling his first etiquette dinner.
Etiquette in College?
Proper etiquette is not something you always associate with college students. And it is a problem with today’s culture in general. About 75 percent of Americans believe that society’s lack of manners is at a crisis level, according to a recent study.
But for over twenty years, Dr. Barnett has been attempting to correct that by offering a very unusual type of curriculum at William Woods University: etiquette lessons.
As Zink and countless other students have learned, attending one of these events is an exciting and helpful experience.
“I now feel prepared for social situations,” said Kelly Stumpe ’16, a client advisor at BMW in St. Louis who participated in several dinners while she was a student. “I really enjoyed the opportunity, though I didn’t realize the importance of it until I graduated. I think it’s wonderful that William Woods wants to prepare us on so many levels to be successful in the real world.”
But how did this tradition first come about?
Etiquette Dinners at William Woods
Etiquette has always been important to Dr. Barnett, who has been the president of William Woods since 1990. “If you grow up in the South, it is a very much a part of who you are,” said the southern native.
After acting as a long-time business professor at William Woods, followed by vice president of admissions, retention, and development, Dr. Barnett is well versed in what you need to succeed in a professional environment.
The first requests for this type of education came from the fraternities and sororities at The Woods. She now conducts them when asked and also offers them to President’s Twenty (a group of students that acts as a liaison between the president and the student body).
What Is an Etiquette Dinner?
The dinners have taken place at both Dr. Barnett’s house and in the WWU dining room. Students enjoy several courses so that they can practice with different types of food and situations. The president coaches them through the process while relating stories from her personal experience and prior dinners.
Each dinner that Dr. Barnett has held has been slightly different. Students learn everything from how to fold a napkin and which fork to use to how to act during a cocktail hour and common conversation mistakes. They also discuss things like proper English usage, alcohol consumption, and cell phone etiquette.
If Dr. Barnett has learned one thing over the years, it is that you never know what social situation you will encounter. She was once traveling for business in Thailand when she was served a soup that had a minnow swimming in it!
Interview etiquette is also covered. What should students do or not do? How do you make a good impression? What are little things that will get you noticed by prospective employers? These are all skills that Dr. Barnett wants students to learn as they go off into their careers.
“An interview does not start when you sit down,” counseled Dr. Barnett. “It starts when you park your car and get out. It is about how you conduct yourself during lunch, what your posture is like, how you talk with the assistant, etc.”
And she makes sure participants of the etiquette dinners understand all of this.
“I thought I was confident in my skills going into the dinner,” said Payton Lanzafame, a junior Communication major from St. Peters, Mo. “But I soon realized that there were still things I needed to learn and become more comfortable with. We will be using these skills in the near future, so what I learned was very beneficial.”
“After the dinner, I felt prepared for any future employment opportunities,” agreed Zink. “I learned how to set myself up for success during important occasions — and to never order ribs when you’re at a dinner meeting with your boss!”
Why Etiquette Matters
“I want our students to be successful,” said Dr. Barnett. “They need to feel confident interacting at a professional level and this type of knowledge helps.”
The president recently visited Cerner, one of the country’s top health care technology companies, to meet with several alumni who work there. She also spoke with an executive recruiter for the organization and they discussed what human resources looks for when hiring. The recruiter told her that the people they interview are usually technically top notch in their particular area, so when searching for fit, they actually look for soft skills. Proper etiquette is one of those crucial soft skills.
Etiquette is often thought of as outdated. But that could not be further from the truth. The rules have softened over the years, but etiquette is still crucial to everyday life.
“Going out to a nice restaurant with a client is a lot different than going to Tucker Dining Hall,” laughed Lucas Watson ’13, MBA ’15, who is now a consultant at Cerner. “You will understand the importance of proper etiquette when you’re sitting next to a CEO during dinner. In business, so much is accomplished and developed outside of the office at dinners and happy hours. Showing that you know what you’re doing is impressive and could help seal the deal.”
“William Woods focuses on getting students ready for life and career after school,” continued Watson. “I have used the lessons I learned during etiquette dinners since day one of my job.”