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November 17, 2004:

Table manners and career planners

By Jordan Paul Amadio ‘05

Hours after arriving with his father at Princeton’s Graduate College, the soon-to-be legendary physicist Richard Feynman *42 was invited to tea with the dean. In his memoirs, Feynman recounted the discomfort of that day: “I had no social abilities whatsoever; I had no experience with this sort of thing.” When the dean’s wife asked Feynman’s preference for cream or lemon, the future Nobel Laureate nervously requested both. “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” replied the incredulous matron – a phrase that the scientist would later enshrine as the title of his autobiography.

Had he matriculated seven decades later, Feynman’s indecorous gaffe might have been prevented. Today, Princeton takes a more proactive approach to dining decorum. After all, the Graduate School charges its alumni with leadership in the global community – and for that, argue some, proper table manners are required.

On Oct. 6, graduate students were invited to the third annual “etiquette dinner,” jointly sponsored by the Graduate School and Career Services. Over two hours of intense instruction, professional etiquette consultant Debbie Cuccinotta gently guided the 41 puzzled attendees – many of them hailing from outside the Western hemisphere – through the intricacies of a formal Euro-American meal. To the end of preparing these students for a business or social dinner – one that might win or lose them a contract, promotion, or job, according to Ms. Cuccinotta – the curriculum included such important lessons as “A Visual Briefing on Silverware and Glasses,” “Posture at the Table and Excusing Yourself,” and “Conversation.” Yes, there was even an illustrated reading packet.

Audience participation was strongly encouraged. Luke MacDonald, a first-year civil engineering grad student, shot his hand up during a lecture on the mechanics of buttering a roll. “I eat really fast. Is that rude?” Ms. Cuccinotta frowned and nodded, prompting another question from the back of the room. Andrew Yang GS, who is in his first-year in the math department, rose to his feet and spoke up timidly: “But I wouldn’t want champagne or sherry. Can I order milk?”

Commencement is still months away – and as far as many undergraduate seniors are concerned, it had better stay that way. For those not heading off to the green pastures of postgraduate education, the siren song of the “real world” is both frightening and irresistible. For job seekers, high season is already drawing to a close. Between September and November, one sees a proliferation of ill-fitting suits scurrying between classes to investment banking presentations at the Nassau Inn or management consulting interviews in New York. A little-known fact: for the privilege of hawking themselves to Princeton seniors, companies must pay the University a handsome fee. Students, ever grateful, respond by temporarily adopting the career competition as an all-consuming activity, one that easily trumps social life, academics, sleep, and sanity. (A few weeks ago, my friend barged into a meeting 45 minutes late, waltzed to the center of the room in her business attire, and blurted out to us assembled mortals: “Guess who just got a job with Bear Stearns!”)

In the current job market, nonetheless, further study remains an attractive option. Many seniors spent the first part of the semester feverishly filling out applications and writing personal statements, a process that may pay off when they head to medical school, law school, or a prestigious fellowship program. Some students’ plans, though, are far more exotic. George Nikiforov ’05, an electrical engineering major, is looking for a position in a technology company. If he doesn’t land one, he says, he will gladly return home to his native Bulgaria and complete his required tour of duty in the military. “I think it would be an excellent wake-up,” whispered Nikiforov, as if to make sure no one was listening. “After being at Princeton so long, it would bring me back to reality.”

Jordan Paul Amadio, a biophysics concentrator from Cazenovia, N.Y., can be reached at jamadio@princeton.edu.