And all it took was two hours of bearing up under Carol Haislip's patrician gaze as she waved the silver instrument of torture with the twisted prong known as a "butter pick" through the air, perilously close to my throat.
Possibly, the danger was all in my mind. It's true that I lack the higher, lower and intermediate social graces — I am a child of the lawless '70s, after all. And it's equally true that I had never fully grasped silverware's potential for inflicting bodily harm until I attended "Fish Forks and Finger Bowls," a seminar that teaches table manners to adults.
But as one of the founders of the Hunt Valley-based International School of Protocol, Haislip couldn't have been friendlier or less intimidating. Perhaps that's because putting one's guests at their ease is the first principle of the code of graciousness that she's trying to impart.
As she puts it: "We don't take either ourselves or the rules of etiquette too seriously. Good manners is all about making other people comfortable."
Path to success
She told the class that she's been teaching etiquette for 17 years. For nearly two decades before that, she worked in sales and human resources for a major corporation.
"We took everybody to lunch before we offered them a position," she says. "And one of the things I figured out was that it wasn't the smartest people who were the most successful in the workplace. It was the ones with the strongest social skills."
Haislip's school is just one of several programs in the Baltimore area to teach the fundamentals of mannerly living to children and adults. Other programs included Anne Arundel-based etiquette coach Diane Cookson and the Etiquette School of Maryland in Ellicott City.
As the latter writes on its website: "Every business meal is rife with the potential for disaster. People judge us by which fork we use, whether or not we put our napkins on our laps and how we cut our meat."
That lesson wasn't lost on my classmates.
For instance, John Campbell of Columbia has recently been promoted to the executive level of an information technology firm. International travel is part of the job, so he's doing his best to avoid making inadvertent faux pas, such as holding his chopsticks vertically while dining in Asia. (That's considered barbaric, Haislip says, because it's reminiscent of incense-burning joss sticks, which are used at funerals.)
"It's getting more and more important," Campbell says, "that I know how to participate properly."
To be fair, Campbell got a run for his money from his wife, Kellé. She grew up in Jamaica, so she breezed through the sections on the continental (as opposed to the American) style of dining, in which the fork is always held in the left hand, and the knife always in the right.
Holding my fork upside-down, I struggled futilely to mound my practice Rice Chex on the top of the curve as instructed, only to watch the slippery little cubes toboggan down the tines.
Kellé Campbell, in contrast, can easily mash and mound any food whatsoever onto the back of her fork and lift it to her mouth without dropping a morsel: Rice. Orzo. Peas, for crying out loud.
I should have had an advantage when we practiced American-style dining. And indeed, early on I took the lead, adroitly holding my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right while cutting my food, and then deftly switching the fork to my right hand when it was time to spear a bite, a method known as "criss-cross dining."
But I spoiled that fine impression when my decommissioned, utensil-free hand neglected to remain properly in my lap. Instead, my fingers crept recklessly onto the table.
It appeared to take all of Haislip's admirable restraint to keep from impaling the offending extremity with an ice-cream fork. (And yes — there really is such an implement, with a rounded edge and a prong in the middle. It resembles a spoon with a split personality.)