Samuel Mosonyi is a law student at the University of Toronto.
Flickering candlelight casts strange shadows along the walls. The accumulated mumble of voices is silenced by the piercing sound of a gong, followed by an immediate eerie quietness. Everyone rises from their seats, gowns billowing. A mesmerizing Latin chant reverberates throughout the medieval hall.
This wasn't a strange dream, but part of my real-life journey as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, the world's fourth-oldest university. As an undergrad in Canada, I would meet up with colleagues over a casual pint at the campus pub, but in Cambridge, socializing takes place in a more formal and structured setting.
The most frequent communal activity that has persisted since the university's founding is the "formal hall." This elaborate custom involves the donning of formal attire and gown and partaking in a three-course meal served in ancient dining halls.
Participating in these formals teaches numerous important skills. Firstly, they bring people out of their academic silos and facilitate interactions between disciplines. One evening, I conversed with a gentleman who directed a pharmaceutical company. He was interested in learning about Canada's Constitution, and afterward he spoke about the clinical trials his company was conducting.
Cambridge has been lauded for its numerous partnerships between industry and academia, which induce people from different professions to mingle. These interactions accumulate and help to develop crucial social skills. It certainly carried over into both my academic life, where I became comfortable interviewing senior criminal justice professionals for my dissertation, and my everyday interactions, where I found it much easier to engage on topics that I wasn't familiar with.
The formals also provide an essential reminder of the importance of tradition, formality and customs. At a typical event, college members (students, faculty and alumni) file into the dining hall, and then the gong is rung. Everyone stands up while the "high table" members enter. This table is slightly elevated above the rest (hence its name) and is where the college's senior members and their guests dine. The most senior member present reads grace in Latin. Everyone sits, the first course is served and the meal begins.
But creating this kind of environment doesn't require a hallowed hall with centuries of history. Even in our relatively informal society, traditions, customs and rituals still persevere in professional environments, and those who can navigate these will find themselves at an advantage.
A recent study in the Harvard Business Review supports the fact that negotiating deals over dinner leads to more profitable outcomes for both parties, compared with negotiating without a meal. This is because glucose levels rise while eating, leading to more self-control and less aggressive behaviour. Additionally, we instinctively imitate the behaviour of those around us, leading to more pro-social behaviour and interactions.
In business, law and other professions, young job candidates are frequently invited out for dinner, often along with their competitors for the job. Employers may observe how applicants interact with others, including the wait staff, since they can infer how a potential employee might treat future colleagues.
The great thing about etiquette is it can be easily studied and learned. But it must be reinforced with practice. Canadian employers are increasingly calling on postsecondary institutions to teach "soft skills" such as collaboration, team skills, and the ability to interact across cultural and national boundaries.
Given the valuable skills that dining can engender, Canadian universities would be well placed to create such opportunities for students. There's a lot for students and aspiring professionals to learn amid the candlelight.