“Set the table” was a directive that triggered a nightly dining room chore when I was growing up. Sometimes my sister got the table setting task; it meant I would be washing the dishes after the meal. I learned early that the knife and spoon were to be placed to the right of the dinner plate with the cutting edge of the knife turned toward the plate. By eight, I knew when company was included for dinner, there would be a second shorter fork involved, always arranged outside in according to the fork’s sequence of use during the meal. Dinnerware was to always be set with the base end one inch from the edge of the table.
Table setting precision was not my mother’s peculiar focus on culinary minutia nor an odd obsession with order. Proper table setting was an important prelude to a nice meal, signaling it was to be special, not just functional. It reflected a desire for symmetry, a sense of refinement, and proper etiquette that distinguished the evening meal from a backyard picnic.
Our daily lives are punctuated with table setting-like gestures. Our language is littered with its usage–overture, trailer, prologue, appetizer, foyer, sample, home page, curb appeal, even introductions. We see it take human form with greeters, receptionists, concierges, ushers, and warm-up acts. They are a form of preparation, often heralding the mood, tone, and style to unfold. They shape expectations.
Your customers enter all encounters with you with their antennae most extending at the beginning. Their careful search for signals and cues gives them accurate (or inaccurate) hints at what is to come. It makes service preparation vital. When your mother told you that you did not have a second chance to make a good first impression, she was not just giving you a grammatical impossibility; she was warning you to pay close attention to the anticipatory set you were creating. Give your customers the best fruits of your mother’s wisdom.