At Davos, etiquette is the great equalizer

Meeting of the minds—and manners.
Meeting of the minds—and manners.
Image: Reuters
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Does it matter how you hold your cutlery if you’re a billionaire or leader of the free world? Wouldn’t everyone else, presumably, be too preoccupied to notice such things around you? According to Myka Meier, an etiquette expert and founder of Beaumont Etiquette who just returned from training Davos attendees on table manners and polite conversation, of course it matters—and of course people will notice. “It’s a matter of showing respect to the people around you,” she explained on the phone.

The 2018 World Economic Forum, aka Davos, is now well underway. Between January 23 and 26, 3,000 invitees—about 900 of which are Silicon Valley tech moguls, Swiss bankers, or Hong Kong tycoons, and the 70 world leaders (including Donald Trump) who want to talk to them—gather in the Swiss Alps resort town to talk about “improving the state of the world.” Many of these conversations will be held not on panel discussions or podiums or in front of the camera, but at the dinner table. But how does everyone know which fork is for dessert (or which desserts are eaten with spoons?), and which knife to use first, and how to hold the knife and fork once you’ve picked them out? Well, they don’t, even if they’re Silicon Valley elites who could buy out the entire dining room, because the table setting at Davos is continental style.

American-style table etiquette involves cutting your food with the knife in your right hand, placing the knife down on your plate, and picking up the fork with your right hand before taking a bite. It requires constant switching, and to many Europeans, it looks gauche and improper. Continental, which is the style used throughout Switzerland (including Davos), does not involve switching: the fork stays on your left hand, and the knife stays on your right hand. There are more rules to both styles of etiquette than this, but these two are the most obvious to the casual eye—and the most egregious offenses to those whose eyes are more discerning.

So what happens if, say, Argentinean Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (mayor of Buenos Aires), Canadian Ali Velshi (journalist at NBC News), Chinese Helen Wong (chief executive of Greater China, HSBC), Prince Haakon of Norway (he’s royalty, enough said), American Donald Trump (president of the United States), and Syrian Feras Fayyard (writer and filmmaker) found themselves together at one of Davos’ ubiquitous white tablecloth dining tables for dinner? First, Meier hopes that they all know that the dessert fork is at the top of the plate. Secondly, she hopes that if one of them, for example, uses the dessert fork for salad instead, that no one has the indiscretion to point it out.

“It’s never good etiquette to correct someone’s poor etiquette,” she said. “By pointing something out, you’re creating insecurity in that person.” She qualified her statement by adding that, if it’s someone on your team or someone to whom you’re an adviser, you can quietly correct them. At Davos, you should be confident about the small things so that you can worry about the big things. “Not having the proper etiquette can be distracting for other guests,” she explained. “And you can’t do business or talk or be receptive if you are insecure about what glass is for what.”

Table manners have long been a signifier of one’s social class and standing. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, defines this phenomena as “the rules of the game.” The upper classes are taught certain mannerisms from early childhood and onwards—mundane processes and habits like eating a poached pear with a spoon or never talking about money. These mannerisms that ultimately become pre-conscious, Bourdieu argued, are so ingrained that they are not easy to learn. In other words, Prince Haakon of Norway doesn’t have to think twice about which fork to use. But a Silicon Valley tech evangelist who grew up in a comfortable middle-class American home—not so much. Summits like Davos bring together the rich, powerful, and famous of the world, but they are also centers of old world Eurocentric privilege in which the newcomers must adapt.

Which is why many American prep schools are already training their baby elites for the intricacies of formal dining—and it doesn’t involve traditional notions of etiquette. It mirrors the training that an aristocrat would receive, which is none at all. When Columbia University sociologist Shamus Khan, PhD, went back as a teacher to his prestigious alma mater, the New Hampshire boarding school St. Paul’s, he realized that every dinner was a formal dinner. The goal, it seemed, was to train these teenage boys—from blue-blooded legacies to scholarship students— the  “ease” that comes with knowing that the rules of upper-class society involve not thinking about them at all.

“Rather than be forced to learn formal rules of etiquette, students learn to be comfortable around such elite tastes and sensibilities and, more often than not, even be indifferent to them,” Khan wrote in his 2012 book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. “The students at seated meal are not uncomfortable in their formal attire, nor are they anxious about eating with faculty members. […] They could care less.”

But for attendees of Davos who did not grow up just “knowing” such things, Meier and her team come to the rescue. She teaches them how to wear a tie—the Windsor knot is a classic—and how to speak to journalists. (Former 22-year-long Times of London reporter and co-creator of the personal branding and consulting arm of the business, Adam Fresco, provides mock interviews.) The latter is an important skill that even the most blue-blooded of Davos attendees need training. After all, one may grow up with a silver spoon in their mouth, but one does not always grow up with a camera in front of their face.