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Best Behavior

Bringing Manners Back to the Table

Article by Bill Furbee

Photography by Matthew J Capps Business Image Services

Originally published in Loveland Lifestyle

If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to make a proper introduction—and who hasn’t?—Loveland native Mary Starvaggi is the pro to turn to for assistance.

That’s because, for more than two decades, Mary has helped thousands of individuals “level up” their business and personal interactions as an etiquette consultant and communications specialist (you know that old adage regarding first impressions and single chances). As founder of Etiquette Advantage, she’s driven to advise when it comes to professional protocol and social etiquette, for both neighbors here in Loveland and around the world.

“When I tell people what I do, they automatically step back,” Mary says with an infectious laugh. “They tell me, ‘I would have acted differently if I had known that’s what you do!’”

“People tend to think that etiquette is sticking your pinky in the air while sipping tea,” she continues. “But it’s really just a big old fancy word for manners. Good or bad, we all have manners—and I don’t care how old or young you are, manners apply to everyone.”

Proper etiquette, Mary explains, impacts the places we work, learn and socialize. It puts yourself and others at ease. “And people notice that.”

Hence why Etiquette Advantage has three divisions, each tailored to meet the needs of different groups or individuals: Healthcare, Corporate, and Educational.

“I’m a national speaker for AbbVie Pharmaceutical, and travel around the country speaking to group practices, hospitals and healthcare systems,” Mary says. “I help them learn more about understanding patient satisfaction and treating patients better.”

On the corporate landscape, Etiquette Advantage assists a number of Fortune 500 companies, law firms, accounting organizations and engineering groups. “Basically, any business that prioritizes customer service and business etiquette,” she says. “We also work with summer interns and assist in interviewing skills and presentation etiquette.”

From CEOs to interns, Etiquette Advantage is encouraging individuals and organizations to forge better connections and civility. “We all know what’s right and what’s wrong, but sometimes it gets clouded. As I say to corporate clients, ‘let’s refresh your professionalism’—and make sure people recognize it when they meet you.”

But it’s not just the corporate crowd. “Teaching students and clients the art of fine dining has been a huge success for us,” Mary proudly reports. “We travel to colleges and universities, high schools and school districts all over the country. Manners and etiquette are basic but important life skills.”

Take listening, for example. “People don’t listen anymore—it’s hard to be a good listener. But if you can listen to someone, they’ll find you interesting,” she offers. “We have so many distractions today, and at some point, we have to just stop and listen. When you listen, it shows you care—and when people know you care, they appreciate you.”

Although the world around us is constantly changing, the rules of etiquette don’t. “We didn’t know how to compose an email 40 years ago,” she smiles. “But ‘please,’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ … those haven't changed!” So if you need a little help—whether dining or discourse, interviews or introductions—now you know a well-mannered expert.

So what are Mary’s essentials when it comes to etiquette? She happily shares a handful of the most important—regardless of your age or occupation.

The Intro: “The three most important parts of an introduction are eye contact, a smile and a handshake. During COVID, we got away from handshakes—now we’re like, ‘Should we shake hands? Hug? Stand six feet apart?’” she laughs. “But a handshake, smile and eye contact are still important. Eighty-five percent of a first impression is nonverbal—you only get one chance to make a first impression positive and powerful.”

The Tag: What about name decals? They’re a networking event staple—and always go on the right. She also points out the importance of using first names when speaking with others.

The Napkin: If dining, wait until all guests have arrived at the table before placing a napkin in your lap—and never use napkins as a bib. “In fact, never even wear a bib,” she stresses, especially for business meetings or during an interview. “If you need a bib, you’ve ordered the wrong dish!” Regardless of the occasion, remember why you’re there—food comes secondary to the meeting.

The Table: Remember that solids (like butter or condiments) go on the left, and liquids (drinks) on the right. Her trick to remember that, “Make a circle with your thumb and forefinger—your left hand makes a ‘b,’ which points to your bread plate; your right makes a ‘d,’ pointing to your drink.” Dining tip: never serve yourself first, pass everything to the right, and hide both handles when cutting with your fork and knife.

The Staff: Finally, choose a reputable restaurant to ensure quality service and food, and always treat servers with respect. “If you don’t, it reflects poorly on how you might regard others, especially clients,” she reminds us. “And never order challenging foods, especially during an interview or when dining with clients.” So maybe skip the buffalo wings, whole lobster or escargot in its shell. | 513.607.4664