I recently attended a state banquet held in honor of visiting heads of state. While sitting in my table looking at the fancy setting and the sharply dressed guests, I suddenly recalled the time I was trying to pass the Foreign Service Examinations. Part of the exams was a test on how well you do in settings like formal dinners. That includes your ability to mingle with people you don't know or barely do, to use the appropriate eating utensils, to eat your food properly, to involve yourself in conversations or start one, and to see how much you know about table manners, all in a pressured-packed simulation of a diplomatic setting. I expected that to be part of the examination process, given the circumstances of the job.
Admittedly, I was in the dark about all the formalities of such occasions. I come from a lower middle class family. Prior to the exams, I've never once been invited to fancy parties that diplomats usually hold. The only parties I attended before are the ones that are normally celebrated with spaghetti, fried chicken, and cake with family; beer and pulutan with barkada; and videoke and crispy pata with officemates. All of which don't pay attention to what fork you use or how you cut your meat.
So yeah, when it was testing day, I was faking social skills and graces like my life depended on it. Joining in idle chatter, nodding politely at whatever the examiners were saying, keeping a grin that may mean I just pulled of the biggest bank heist ever, I was pulling out all the stops. Seriously, I was only doing what I thought people should be doing during such occasions, based entirely on what I saw on TV and movies.
During the dinner itself, there was big time pressure as the examiners are eating with you on the table, grading every little thing you do or say. I kept wondering what I should talk about. Should I go intellectual and talk about the economy or the environment? Should I go cultural and talk about theater or classical music. And then I blurted out, "You know, the Philippines should export its fantaserye like 'Darna' and 'Encantadia.' There's a market for them abroad."
WTF? I just blurted out something about shows manufactured to please the taste of the masa. It seemed like I shot myself in the foot. But then I calmed down and explained as clearly as possible that the Philippine networks have been buying rights to air soap operas from Mexico, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. We can explore the possibility of trying to interest other countries in our TV shows. I explained that a show starring Jericho Rosales and Kristine Hermosa did very well in other ASEAN countries. I guess they seemed surprised at the curve ball I threw and liked it. Or maybe they just took pity on my sorry ass. Who knows?
(Of course, there's also the legendary "from the fishbowl speeches" that are part of the FSO exams. But you'll have to take the examinations first to know more about that.)
Once you enter the service, you get further training on things like table etiquette, how to host and arrange a party, how to set tables properly, the different types of parties you'll be organizing as a diplomat, etc. You gotta learn all that jazz and you'll be all the better for it. Trust me. They'll come handy in the future and will save your ass more than you know. You'll thank your teachers later.
(I can't believe the hours I spent ogling at Angel Locsin and Diana Zubiri on TV got me a job. Thank you, ladies!)
But I learned something else important, too, when I started attending honest-to-goodness diplomatic dinners or lunches. Everybody just wants to have a good meal, no matter what rank or status you have. It matters not that you remember how to correctly scoop up soup or eat your bread as "protocol" dictates. The most important thing is that you show respect to the other people at the table, be a nice guy, and honor the host by enjoying the food he prepared.
The food is primarily served to be feasted on by grateful guests. It's not served to test how well you learned about table manners. In such settings, the ultimate insult one can do is to end up looking like you're not enjoying your host's hospitality by being too caught up in all the little things.
In the end, any person who knows how to show respect while eating will do fine. You know what not to do from your childhood. Don't touch other people's food. Don't take from other people's plate. Don't chew with your mouth open. Don't talk when your mouth is full. Be kind enough to pass the salt and pepper when someone asks. And politely ask if anyone else would like to have that last piece of dessert. Knowing them has nothing to do with being "sosyal." Knowing them is called common sense and decency. And those two are all you really need.
I try to enjoy my meal. If none is on the table, I ask for a spoon if a significant amount of rice is involved. I still suck at using a knife, too, having mastered the Pinoy skill of using a spoon as a knife (or fork-as-knife if that's what I have). And you know what? You're not going to be kicked out for doing what I do. If you're observant, you'll also notice other diplomats have a unique way of eating their food. It's not impoliteness. It's cultural diversity at work. (See, even the Canadian courts agree.)
More importantly for me is to enjoy the company of the people I'm with. Meals with diplomats are a great time to listen to stories about the experiences of people who have traveled all over the world. Or to just listen to a witty joke here and there (it's okay to laugh if it's really funny). Enjoy the moment and appreciate the privilege of being invited to a meal with your colleagues. How you fold your napkin after use doesn't mean anything. What matters are the friendships you develop.
So if ever you get invited to a formal banquet, relax, enjoy the food, magpakabusog ka. Bon appetit!