Did you know that you should never take the first bite when dining with the queen of England?

Today’s etiquette topic is: Proper Table (burp) Manners.

I have here a letter from Jean Gerdes, who teaches family and consumer science to sixth-graders at the Donegal Middle School in Marietta, Pa. She states:

“I would like to ask your help in teaching my students the importance of good manners. I have found that if they can see how good manners might help them in their future, they are more motivated to learn and practice them. It would be a great help if you could write a brief letter about what is involved in your profession and how manners, particularly table manners, impact your career.”

OK, here goes:

Dear Donegal Middle School Students:

Without good table manners, you will never get a prestigious job such as business executive, brain surgeon or humor columnist. Let’s consider two recent college graduates, “Bill” and “Bob,” who are being interviewed for a high-level corporate position over lunch at a fancy restaurant. During the meal, “Bill” displays excellent table manners; whereas “Bob” chews with his mouth open, wipes his mouth on his tie and uses his salad fork to clean his toenails. Which one do you think will get the job?

That is correct: Neither one will get the job, because this particular corporation has a strict policy against hiring people with quotation marks around their names. But the interviewer was definitely more impressed with “Bill.”

Another good example is Warren Christopher, who until his resignation held the high-level position of U.S. secretary of state despite looking like a severely depressed squirrel. His secret? He had excellent table manners, which he used to influence powerful foreign leaders at state dinners.

CHRISTOPHER: May I offer you some dessert, Your Excellency?

FOREIGN LEADER: Sure … But wait! This is your last Pez!

CHRISTOPHER: Take it! I insist! And keep the dispenser!

FOREIGN LEADER: Wow! The Papa Smurf model! I guess I’ll allow a U.S. naval base in my country after all!

Table manners have had a similarly large impact on my own career. When I invite important news sources out to lunch, I impress them by showing that I know the “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” of dining etiquette, such as:

• Do shout your guest’s order into the drive-through speaker before shouting your own.

• Do ask your guest to please steer the car while you apply ketchup to your hamburger.

• Don’t snatch fallen french fries from between your thighs and eat them without first distracting the news source by shouting, “Hey, look over there!”

Yes, students at Donegal Middle School, good table manners do make a difference, which is why you must listen carefully to your Consumer Science teacher. Because the rules of etiquette can be tricky. Suppose you sit down to a formal dinner, and there are three forks at your place setting. Which fork should you use? The answer – and here I am quoting from the classic reference work, “The Amy and Bud Vanderbilt Guide To Table Manners and Boat Repair” – is “the cleanest fork.” Using your left hand, and starting with the outside fork, hold each fork up and examine it carefully for signs of crud; if you see any, you should quietly, without drawing attention to yourself, switch it with a fork taken from the person sitting on your immediate right.

Likewise, Donegal Middle students, if you’re having dinner with the queen of England, it is considered improper to start eating before she starts. You have to pay close attention, because sometimes the queen likes to kid around. She’ll bend over her plate and come up making a chewing motion, so all her guests will start eating, but then suddenly the queen will yell, “Hah!” and open her mouth wide to show that she was really faking it, and all the guests have to spit their food out. At a famous 1989 dinner that everybody in England still talks about, the queen successfully pulled this prank on Dan Quayle 11 consecutive times.

Also – this is very important – if you’re at a salad bar, and there’s only a small amount of chopped egg left, and I am in the line behind you, leave the chopped egg alone, because I want it.

Also, if you are one of those young people who feel the need to wear a baseball-style cap at all times, including in restaurants, at weddings, etc., and you have to attend a funeral, you should, as a token of respect for the deceased, point your bill forward.

Yes, Donegal Middle students, if you take the time to learn these basic rules of etiquette, you can become a successful and respected individual such as myself, Oprah Winfrey and the pope. So I urge you to pay attention in your consumer science class, study hard, mind your manners, be considerate and – I cannot stress this point too much – take that gum out of your mouth.

This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Nov. 24, 1996.

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