Arminé Nielsen Tatosian: Modern manners
Advice from a modern manners coach and the promising resurgence of etiquette.
Say “please” and “thank you.” Look people in the eye when you speak with them. Put your hand in front of your mouth when you yawn. Don’t play with your food. These are some of the lessons our parents taught us as children to help nurture us into upstanding members of society. They are also reminders that the best things in life are free: a simple “hello,” holding open a door for an elder or a thoughtful thank you note have the power to make someone else’s day. It’s sometimes the smallest things — a bit of decorum and respect — that go the longest way.
The term “etiquette” is derived from the French word “étiquette,” which refers to the signs Louis XIV maintained on the lawns of the Palace of Versailles directing visitors to “Keep off the grass!” While signs of that nature would be extreme by today’s standards, sometimes we all need a good reminder of our manners. And that’s where Arminé Nielsen Tatosian comes in. Because sometimes common courtesy isn’t so common, Tatosian is a modern manners coach who teaches us how to behave in accordance with modern etiquette. As social-distancing restrictions begin to ease, and schedules are filled with dinner parties with family, friends and colleagues, surely everyone could benefit from Tatosian’s lessons of how to be a gracious host and a thoughtful guest.
Q: Why do you believe it’s important to have a basic understanding of good manners and etiquette in today’s world?
A: I think kindness and courtesy are contagious; they just bring out the good in people. Etiquette is being courteous and respectful toward each other. It’s being kind to one another and to be respectful to the other person.
Q: Where did you learn your manners and how have you cultivated your etiquette skills? Have you always been interested in the art of etiquette?
A: I actually grew up with it, and it was always an interest of mine as well, and when I was very young, I started reading books on etiquette and manners and all the old classics like Emily Post. I just found it so fascinating to read and understand.
Q: Do you believe that proper etiquette is becoming more and more of a lost art?
A: Over the last 40 years, it definitely has been a lost art, but I’m finding there’s been a new interest in it. I think people are starting to come back. There are so many etiquette coaches now, and there are more schools now that are teaching etiquette training, other etiquette trainers. And I think it is a new art now, [and] because it has been lost for such a long time, it’s making a comeback. It makes me happy to know that so many people are interested in it right now, bettering themselves and becoming a better person, a kinder person and a respectful person. You’d be surprised about how many don’t know how to set a table or how many people don’t know how to eat, and it’s so important, I think, in business and in everyday life to bring out the best in you.
Q: Can you speak on how etiquette goes beyond table manners and how it applies in everyday life?
A: It applies in everyday life, because I think being respectful and kind to each other is etiquette, being respectful to others and having a positive image. To greet people every day, to smile, to say “hello,” to look people in the eye, shake hands and thank them, that’s what we should be doing. We should be thanking people, looking people right in the eye, saying “Hello” and “How are you?” and showing interest in what other people are doing and how they are. And also to know your boundaries, not to be personal if you don’t know someone so well, not to be so personal with them.
Q: What is the recipe for a beautiful thank you card?
A: I find that in our society, right now, there are so many technologies around us: we have Instagram, we have Facebook, we have emails and texts, which they never did in the past. So, I find, if you meet someone for drinks or for coffee, or if you just met a friend at restaurant or for coffee, it’s always nice to reach out by text and say, “Thank you so much. It was so nice to see you, and I had a wonderful time. Hope to get together again.”
It’s always nice to have personalized stationery, but you don’t need to. If you want to go the extra length and send them a card or a note, it’s always welcome, because people are so bombarded with technology, so it’s so nice for them to get something in the mail that’s not a bill. It’s always nice to have nice stationery at the end of the day. It’s nice and tactful.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a positive impression as a guest?
A: You should never go into anyone’s house without a gift. So, if you’re invited for drinks or for dinner, you should never go empty-handed. But don’t take flowers, especially uncut flowers without a vase, because that takes time away from the hostess, to take the flowers, to cut them, to arrange them in a vase, which she doesn’t have time to do, because she has other guests to attend to.
So, when you go to someone’s house, it’s OK to take a bottle of wine, but make sure it’s in a bag, that it’s nicely presented, but do not expect the hostess to serve that wine. It’s a gift that you’re giving to her, [and] she probably has a wine that she has selected for that day, so she doesn’t need to serve that. You could also bring jams, olive oil, soaps and tea towels. Those are lovely gifts to give. It doesn’t have to be expensive: it could be a tea towel that you saw for $20, it could be a soap you saw for $10, it could be a jam for $8 — whatever. Just as long as it’s a little gift — it could be $20 and under — it doesn’t have to be extravagant.
Q: Which customs/manners do you believe are outdated today?
A: In the old days, it was more of an elaborate table setting. I think our lifestyle now is simpler than it used to be, and easier, so we have simplified things now. So, when we sit at a dinner table now, we don’t have 10 pieces of cutlery or five to six glasses that are on the table. Now, everything is a lot simpler and easier, so we just have a fork and a knife and a spoon — the basics. We don’t always have a fish knife or a fish fork; [we are] using less cutlery and glasses on the tables — simplified.
Q: What would you consider to be the three biggest faux pas when it comes to table etiquette?
A: Wait until everyone is seated and wait until your host or hostess starts eating before you start eating; I think that’s really important. A lot of people, when they receive their food, they start eating. You should not do that; you should wait until everyone is served and you have your lead from your host or hostess and then she starts eating. Then, you follow her. Or if you’re at a restaurant with a friend, make sure you’re both served and then you start eating at the same time. Often, people don’t know what to do with their cutlery when they’re eating, so they don’t know how to rest their cutlery [and] not to talk with their mouth full. My biggest pet peeve is not to talk with your cutlery. When people start talking and moving, they have a fork and knife in their hands and start making movements and start pointing.
“We should be Thanking people, Looking people Right in the eye, Saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ And showing Interest in what Other people are Doing and how They are”
When you eat soup, the spoon moves away from you. And when you have to get the last bit, you tilt the plate that’s in front of you and away from you, and you use the spoon away from you to get that last bit as well. And so, everything is away from you and not toward you. When people set the table, they don’t know that the sharp part of the knife goes toward their plate. When you have a knife, the sharp edge, it faces the plate, it doesn’t face out, it faces in.
When you have to excuse yourself to go to the ladies’ room, you should never have your soiled napkin on the table. Once you use your napkin, that should never go back on the table while everyone’s eating; nobody wants to see your soiled napkin. So, when you have to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you should leave it on your chair, and when you come back, you pick it up from your chair and put it back on your lap. And when you finished eating, and everyone’s leaving the table, that’s when you put it on the table. It’s the little things.
Q: What do you love about tablescaping and what are your tips to improve one’s tablescaping skills?
A: I think setting the table correctly: cloth napkins and fresh flowers are always nice. I think flowers make everyone happy, so it’s always nice to have fresh flowers on the table. Or, if you don’t have flowers, it’s so nice to have fresh fruit or fresh vegetables on the table. I love decorating with even herbs, or if you love beautiful things or beautiful objects around your house, you could always bring them to the table and display them for others to see. If you don’t have flowers, you could put your decorative objects on books and, you know, things that you love and enjoy; you could just have them on the table as a tablescape.
Q: What does esthetic mean to you? If you had to describe your esthetic in three words, what would they be?
A: I would say that esthetics are proportions — balance, colour, composition — and whatever makes you happy and is pleasant to the eye. Whatever pleases your eye, your vision and that makes you happy.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to manners and etiquette?
A: A lot of people associate etiquette with being arrogant or being snobby, [but] it’s not the case at all. It’s actually the opposite. It’s being more courteous and kinder to each other and not stuffy.
Q: Do you believe there’s a relationship between etiquette and business ethics?
A: Oh, for sure. I think especially for the young people starting out in their careers, and they’re starting to work for companies and they’re having business luncheons and dinners, it’s very important, because people judge you the way you behave, how you speak, how you eat and how you present yourself. So, I think it’s very important for someone who’s just starting their career to have good etiquette. And a lot of large corporations actually do hire etiquette coaches to teach their employees: banks do, lawyers do. I do lunch-and-learns with large companies, and they’re just an hour long, and it’s just to learn the basics: how to give out their business card, how to shake hands and how to have a meal with a new business associate or with a client. So, yes, I think it’s very important.
Q: Can manners affect your success in life?
A: Definitely. People don’t want to be associated with a person who doesn’t carry themselves well or doesn’t have a positive attitude about life and about business, and I think that’s 100 per cent.
Q: What is the most surprising thing about what you do?
A: It actually really surprises me that a lot of people don’t know how to set a table — even waiters at some restaurants. People don’t know how to set tables, how to put a knife down, where the spoon goes or where the fork goes — that is a big surprise to me.
Q: What is your definition of la dolce vita/the good life?
A: Getting together with friends and family, laughing and talking, and sharing stories.
TEN GOOD MANNERS EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE
2. Be kind and courteous.
3. Say “hello” and “goodbye.”
4. After a meeting or being a guest, always follow up with a thank you note, email, text or card, depending on the occasion.
5. Look at people when they are talking to you.
6. Always be punctual for any meeting, date or event.
7. Know what to do at the table and how to use your flatware, glasses and napkin.
8. Wait until all guests are served and the host begins eating before you eat.
9. Chew your food with your mouth closed.
10. A good guest arrives with a gift. A small gift (could be under $20) is appropriate, or it could be homemade jam or cookies. A bottle of wine is always appreciated. It is not necessary to open the bottle of wine that evening.