There was disagreement -- polite disagreement -- about what to do with those pesky olive pits.

Some luncheon diners in the small St. Paul Hotel banquet room thought it was OK to pile them on the side of one's plate. But Angelyn Davis prefers concealing the unsightly little discards under parsley, and she looks like someone who just might get the last word on that.

If Davis has ever had a hair out of place, let alone picked up the wrong fork, it was a long time ago -- fitting for the woman who runs Etiquette, Et Cetera. She teaches two-hour seminars on good business manners to people who are just entering the job market or looking for a brush-up.

Brothers and college students Matthew and Jared Haider of Forest Lake had been enrolled in the course by their mother, Margee Haider. Both testified that no coercion was involved.

"It's so important, not just for business, but for when my boys take their girlfriends, and later their wives, out to dinner," said Mom later, by phone.

The word etiquette may sound fussy and dated, the verbal equivalent of armchair doilies. But knowing and practicing good etiquette -- a combination of manners, appearance and social skills -- is more important than ever in the white-collar world, especially for job hunters.

According to a rather depressing study at the University of California, Los Angeles, 55 percent of first impressions are based on appearance, including how you're dressed and groomed, and 38 percent on nonverbal behaviors. What you have to say amounts to a mere 7 percent.

In a recessionary job market, when competitive edges must be honed sharper than a Yoshi paring knife to land prime positions, every little napkin placement and handshake grip counts. Those niceties alone won't get you hired, but they might help you make a better impression than the 200 other applicants who are equally qualified on paper.

"It's not enough to just be good at the technical part of a technical job," said Pamela Eyring, who runs the Protocol School of Washington (D.C.), which teaches etiquette to military and diplomatic personnel as well as businesspeople.

"Employers who are dealing with fewer resources want someone who can meet with clients, attend functions and sell the company while doing so."

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As class atttendees valiantly tried to avoid slurping their tomato bisque and practiced proper knife-and-fork maneuvers on their Mediterranean chicken, Angelyn Davis gave some pointers on artfully changing a cocktail-party conversation headed into a danger zone.

"If someone says, 'How about that Tiger Woods,' you can say, 'I read that golf on TV viewership is way down,'" she said. "In a business setting, good etiquette actually makes things more comfortable, not less."

Other tips included the "web to web" handshake, to avoid either the dead-fish or the bone-crusher, passing the salt and pepper together, holding the glass at eye level when giving a toast, being mindful not to clink your cup when stirring coffee, and avoiding spaghetti at a business lunch.

"I typically order soup so I don't have to chew much," Davis said.

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In an increasingly casual culture, learning proper business etiquette is complicated. A conservative client may silently disapprove of "Casual Friday," while for others jeans and polos are fine any day of the week. Jim Kwapick, a senior vice president for the recruiting firm Robert Half International, sees part of the problem as different strokes for different age groups -- seniors, boomers and Gen-X and -Yers.

"Many employers are dealing with the collision of four distinct generations all working together, which hasn't really occurred before," he said. "But with more candidates for fewer jobs, it's all the more important not to let some non-job-related detail disqualify you."

The era of under-30 dot-commers who dress and act like sidekicks in an Apatow buddy flick isn't necessarily over for everyone, he said: "Some workplaces are a lot more casual than others, so you need to mirror and match whatever environment you're in. A good rule at a business meeting is to always start from a more formal, traditional position and then adjust to the situation."

Technology has not been etiquette's friend. Much has been made of Facebook's negative effect on new-graduate job searches, but the amount of time you spend plugged in and tuned out is also a problem.

"Young people who are glued to cell phones and computer screens most of the time can't make eye contact, much less speak straight," Eyring said. "You don't learn how to have face-to-face social relationships that way."

Another fact of modern life that has contributed to the erosion of etiquette: Busy families rarely sit down at home together to eat meals, which is where many middle-aged workers learned their table manners.

"I see the automatic advantages young people have when they make eye contact and say, 'Yes, ma'am,' 'No, ma'am,'" Eyring said. "You rarely see that anymore, and when you do, you say, 'Who are his parents?' More colleges should offer social skills courses, because their job placements would be higher."

Many already do, including the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. The school's Undergraduate Business Career Center teaches a course on career skills and etiquette that includes Internet interaction guidelines; it also hosts a dinner-etiquette event and "mocktail" reception that draws hundreds of students each year.

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In the banquet room, sister and brother Molly and Gunnar Dancer of Hastings finished delicately wrestling their towering chocolate desserts into submission, then folded their napkins neatly. What else had they learned?

Molly: "That even the smallest details are important when you're meeting someone for the first time."

Gunnar: "To eat bread by tearing off one small piece at a time."

The Rev. Pamela Fickenscher of Minneapolis, a pastor at Edina Community Lutheran Church, had signed up her 8-year-old daughter for an upcoming children's etiquette class at the hotel.

"Hearing it from Mom is one thing," she said. "Practicing good manners in the company of other kids might be more effective."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046