CHESTERTOWN - The questions were flying fast and furious around the formally set tables in a dining room at Washington College last night.
Is it OK to tuck in your tie?
What if the person you're eating with has food in his teeth?
What's the proper way to sneeze?
And what if your knife gets taken away with your salad?
The occasion was the college's second etiquette dinner, a chance for students to learn how to eat soup and break bread with the best of them.
"I know the basics," said Nicole Kesecker, a junior from Columbia, before the dinner started.
"But I'm not sure about all the forks."
"I don't have a clue about the forks," said Jennifer Corwell, a sophomore from Severna Park.
So they listened through four courses - soup, salad, entrM-ie and dessert - as college catering director Darrell T. Jester gave them the drill on how to handle napkins, wield bread knives and pass salt shakers, and advised against tucking in the tie.
"I'm graduating in May, and undoubtedly these are things I am going to come across in the future," said Leah Golshani, a senior from Largo.
"I hope I'll learn something about the proper way to behave."
This year's dinner was much more popular than last year's, when about 30 students attended.
Almost 90 signed up for last night's meal of crab soup, salad, chicken breast, broccoli, roasted potatoes and cheesecake.
Most came from the senior class, which numbers about 250.
"We promoted this as a life skill, how to handle yourself," said Tara McKee, director of leadership programs in the school's office of student services.
"We want to give students a base level of knowledge so they know that etiquette does exist beyond not speaking with your mouth full," she said.
The dinner's popularity does not surprise Pier Massimo Forni, who teaches courses on civility and civilization and directed the civility project at the Johns Hopkins University.
"Students are fascinated by the mere notion that there are rules, that there are ways codified as being better than another to, for instance, eat a steak or pass the salt," said Forni, a professor in Hopkins' Romance languages department.
He also said Washington College has chosen the right place to start the lessons - the dinner table.
"The kitchen table has always been the manners boot camp, the place where basic manners are taught and learned," he said.
Forni said he laments the decline of the family dinner in this age of two-career parents and activity-filled children.
"But there is a return to it; more and more people do see the merit of it, teaching table manners as a gateway to an understanding of the larger issues of civility," he said.
In learning such manners - waiting until everyone is served to start eating, for example, or passing the pepper with the salt - Forni said he sees the foundations of civil behavior and instilling respect for others.
But he said manners can also be used as weapons to demonstrate superior knowledge of the right fork or the proper wine glass in a way that shows disrespect.
"Manners are a tool, and like any tool, they are as good as the use you make of it," he said. "You can use table manners to be discriminatory or snobbish in an unfair, marginalizing way. But then you do not have good manners; you have the appearance of good manners."
Though it might not have been the mannerly approach, Washington College officials sold the dinner, at least in part, as a way to get ahead.
"Once you leave school, you might be at a business dinner or lunch, or have a meal with an interview," said Linda Cades, director of career development at the school. "There might be a job hanging in the balance. Many of our students come from a very sophisticated social background, but there are others who have not had that experience," she said.
"We wanted to put them in a situation where they can get some basic information and have some fun doing it. It's not that our students have poor manners, but things can be different in a business situation, when you sit down at a table and wonder which water glass is yours," Cades added.
Terence Scout, chairman of the department of business management, said he encouraged business majors to attend and saw about 25 of them there.
"I tell them when they go out for a business meal, they are not there to eat, but to make an impression," he said. "So they shouldn't order something they like, they should order something that's easy to eat." James Malena, a senior from Hyde Park, N.Y., was one of the business majors in attendance.
"A lot of business meetings happen over dinner and lunch, so this is good knowledge to have," he said.
"You can tell a lot about a person by how they handle themselves in these situations."
After the cheesecake, eaten with the fork set sideways above the plate, class was dismissed.