Merrily Bjerkestrand sips soup silently. She cuts her salad greens into petite portions and tears off bite-sized bits of a breadstick with her fingers instead of her teeth.
Across from her, I put my elbows on the table faster than you can spell p-i-g and toss a straw wrapper into the middle of the table for everyone to see.
My faux pas likely pile up from there, but if so, Bjerkestrand is too polite to point them out.
Your fork didnt fall on the floor, and your napkin stayed on your lap, she says after lunch. Id say you did pretty good.
Her policy is not to criticize unless paid to do so.
Bjerkestrand is founder, owner, and sole employee of Northwest School of Protocol, a 2-year-old Spokane company through which she conducts seminars for adults on business etiquette, dining skills, and international protocol. She also teaches classes for children and teens on manners and dining.
Her seminars for adults have ranged in size from one-on-one consulting sessions with executivespoliteness prohibits her from name-droppingto large meals for entire companies.
The Boise Cascade Corp. office at Kettle Falls, Wash., hired Northwest School of Protocol to organize a 30-person dining etiquette seminar with a seven-course dinner recently. Bjerkestrand conducted the classher largest to dateat Patsy Clarks Mansion restaurant.
Lori Johanson, the Kettle Falls-based Washington region human resources manager for Boise Cascades timber and wood products division, says the Kettle Falls unit sponsored the seminar for its management staff because an increasing amount of business is being conducted at lunch meetings, dinner meetings, and social events. The office wanted its employees to be comfortable in those settings, she says.
Its an excellent way to train people for that environment, Johanson says. Everyone I spoke to really enjoyed it.
She says many of the employees who participated in the classand some who didnt attendoften look through the books and workbooks that were provided by Northwest School of Protocol to use as a reference before a social occasion.
In a dining seminar, about four hours of classroom instruction and role-playing is followed by either a four- or seven-course meal. Seminars that dont involve dining take between four and six hours to complete.
Other clients that have hired Northwest School of Protocol to put on etiquette seminars include the Spokane Club, Spokane-based specialty retailer Joel Inc., and Gonzaga University.
Bjerkestrand currently is negotiating to conduct seminars for a couple of Spokanes largest companies. Business acumen keeps her from dropping their names.
Bjerkestrand declines to disclose what she charges for her seminars, but says the fees vary depending on the size of the group and the seminar thats requested.
Deeper than silverware
For Bjerkestrand, the art of etiquette and protocol goes deeper than knowing which spoon or fork to use.
Its about truth, honesty, respect, consideration those are the actions you want to represent, she says. And the executives (that receive etiquette training) end up leaving more powerful and confident in what theyre doing.
A 40-year-old married mother of three who lives on Spokanes North Side, Bjerkestrand is a former high school homecoming queen and cheerleader from a small Yakima Valley town, yet she played guard for the Central Washington University womens basketball team and ran for the track team. She carried the baton on the last leg of an 800-meter medley race run by a team that set the school record, and she says that school record still stands.
Bjerkestrand worked as a middle school and high school teacher off and on for 10 years before resigning in late 1998 to concentrate on the etiquette-consulting business, which she had been trying to operate part time from home with limited success. Since going full time, she has moved to leased office space in the Old City Hall Building, at 221 N. Wall.
She first considered becoming an etiquette consultant in 1996 after reading a magazine article on the topic, but questioned whether there was a need for such services. An occurrence in the classroom shortly thereafter confirmed for her that such services were necessary.
Bjerkestrand was teaching an independent-living class for high school juniors and seniors. She was about to start class when she noticed that a girl was turned around in her chair talking to a boy. As the two kids talked, Bjerkestrand watched the girl pull a stick of deodorant out of her backpack, pull down the neck of her shirt, and rub the stick in each armpit. When questioned about her manners, the girl simply shrugged and said she had just gotten out of physical-education class.
I said to myself, Yes, there is a need for this, Bjerk-estrand says.
Since then, Bjerk-estrand has completed two courses at the Protocol School of Washington, an etiquette-consultant training center based just outside of Washington, D.C. She now is certified by that school to consult in the areas of corporate etiquette, international protocol, and childrens etiquette.
Most of the bad habits Bjerkestrand must correct arent as egregious as those exhibited by the deodorant-applying high school girl. Oftentimes, she says, people have many of the proper etiquette skills and simply need to be told theyre on the right track.
There are, however, several common mistakes in business settings, Bjerk-estrand says, such as:
Finishing a meal before the other people at the table.
Ordering difficult-to-eat food.
Pushing the plate away when done eating.
Not knowing where to place the napkin after the meal. (It goes on the seat of the chair.)
Another mistake often made by businesspeople involves when to exchange business cards, Bjerkestrand says. In any circumstance, a junior executive should wait for a senior executive to initiate the card exchange, she says, because its seen as pushy and presumptuous for a junior executive to do so.
Bjerkestrand asserts that there will be more of a need for etiquette and protocol training in the coming years.
Some of the CEOs that hire me are finding their university graduates are coming to them with the knowledge they need, but they lack the social skills, she says. And I dont think thats just a Northwest or Spokane thing.
Bjerkestrand is hoping there also will be more demand for the childrens etiquette services.
While she has done some seminars in classrooms, much of her work with minors has involved one-on-one sessions with teens who are preparing for special events, such as pageants or entrance interviews at prestigious colleges.
To boost awareness of etiquette training for elementary-aged children and teens, Bjerkestrand is consulting for and will be featured in an instructional video on childrens manners that Image Productions Inc., of Spokane, is producing.
Bjerkestrand sees a parallel between teaching school and teaching proper etiquette. In both settings, she says, I get to give people the skills to make a difference in their lives.
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