Saunders

Dining for success

Staff WriterMarch 25, 2010 

Verily I say unto you, my favorite Bible verse, from the Gospel of Mark, "What does it profiteth a man to gain the world but lose his soul?"

My second favorite verse comes from the Gospel of Seymour, and asks "What does it profiteth a person to gain a job interview if she loses her meatball while dining with a prospective employer?"

OK, it doesn't actually say that, but you get the point. More important, Kaia Clarke gets the point and wants to make sure the students at N.C. Central University get it, too. That's why she is hosting a dinner tonight to teach some female students, who are learning how to handle themselves in corporate boardrooms, how to handle themselves in the dining room, as well.

CNNMoney.com reported that college grads in 2009 had 40 percent fewer job prospects than in the previous year and that 2010 would be only slightly better. With jobs so scarce, knowing how to negotiate a knife and fork at dinner may be as important as knowing how to negotiate a business deal.

Confession: I once squirted lemon into an interviewer's eye while aiming for my iced tea.

Clarke, 29, a grad student in NCCU's School of Public Administration, is Women's Leadership Coordinator for NCCU's women's center. "Etiquette in the 21st century," she said, "entails all of that - proper utensil use, where your fork should be placed. ... But it includes more. A big thing is cell phone use: Is it proper to text or talk at the table?"

She was asking rhetorically, but I wanted to say, sure, it's OK - if, that is, you want to ensure that the only job you get is being a rodeo clown or wearing a paper hat and going "Y'all want fries with that?"

"This is a new world," Clarke said, "and you have to deal with things like what to do with your cell phone" at the table.

I suggested where people at tables could put their cell phones, but Clarke didn't think her students would be receptive. Of course, reception on the phones there wouldn't be too great, either.

Clarke, a 2002 graduate of NCCU with a degree in biology, said, "I was spending all my time analyzing chromosomes. I realized I couldn't use my natural abilities in a lab, so I changed careers." Her natural abilities - organizing and developing programs to help students, she said - led her to restructure the leadership program, of which the etiquette class is a component.

Teaching the women how to comport themselves is cool, but what about the dudes? I asked. Don't they need to know how to pass "the punchbowl test" at business-related social events?

Jason Dorsette, coordinator of the school's Centennial Scholars Program, said 28 of his first-year male students will join Clarke's eight female upperclassmen tonight.

Combining the two groups, Clarke said, will help the women learn "how to gracefully communicate at a table when a man is dominating the conversation."

What? Twenty-eight male freshmen dominating a conversation with eight female upperclassmen?

Hmmph. Those fellows don't stand a chance.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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