How important is it to set the fork on the left side of the plate? A very reasonable question recently asked to the Dean, and naturally the Dean has answers, two actually, both completely correct.
If you are a young professional moving up in the world, planning on making your mark, the answer to the question is that placement of the fork is of upmost importance. Let's say you did not learn how to set a table and it escaped your notice where a fork goes. Sadly you may be marked as a person who has no clue about table manners, and perhaps even as one who is confused in other life skills, business matters, political savvy, social situations -- however incorrect these assumptions may be. Therefore, you must master the seemingly insignificant fork placement to be the person you want to portray.
Now, if you are an older person, say as old as the Dean, it makes little difference where you place your fork. Because you know the rules, and have abided by them forever, you now have the choice to go off pist and do exactly what you want. Say you are running late for your own dinner party and arrive minutes before guests knock on the door. It is perfectly okay for you to put the pot on to boil, place a pile of silverware on the table and pour cocktails without missing a beat. You are not even required to set the table, instead ask your guests to sit down and help themselves to their own fork. Not only will your dinner be delightfully relaxed, you will be known as chic, sui generis, and possessing your own style.
Manners and etiquette must be learned and adhered to to make our society work, including where that damn fork is placed, but once you learn the rules you are allowed to break them when you have already made your mark on the world. Got it?