Table Manners Matter in Some Job Interviews

by Laura Merrill, Manager of Cooperative Education

etiquette (ĕt’ ĭ-kĕt’, -kĭt) n. [Fr., etiquette, label < OFr. estiquet, label. – see TICKET.] The forms and practices prescribed by social convention or by authority. n. The rules governing socially acceptable behavior.

Etiquette is simply the practice of socially acceptable behavior. The definition of etiquette seems straightforward enough. But what does it look like in practice? Who cares? YOU SHOULD. Dining etiquette can be crucial to a successful job search. Companies often look beyond a winning resume and a successful interview when evaluating job candidates. They judge social behavior, which may include a dinner meeting—that’s especially true if the job you’re pursuing requires interaction with customers or company executives. Prepare to dine with prospective employers by following these 10 basic guidelines:

  1. Which fork do I use anyway?! Follow this rule: start from the outside utensil and work your way toward your plate. Use the outermost fork to eat your salad and the outermost spoon for your soup. If there’s a third fork or spoon above your plate, it’s to use with dessert.
  2. Which water glass, dinner roll plate, and salad plate are mine? Remember this: Solids on the left; liquids on the right. Your water glass is on your right; your plates are on your left, above your forks.
  3. What do I do with my napkin? When everyone is seated, place your napkin in your lap, folded in a rectangle with the fold facing your body. When you need to wipe your mouth, dab or wipe with the still-folded napkin and return it to your lap. Don’t use your napkin as a tissue; use tissues or a handkerchief to wipe your nose.
  4. What if the food that is served is something I don’t like? Try everything on your plate, so you don’t offend your host/ess. If after trying something you don’t like, and you are asked if you like it, be gracious. Say “It’s different” or “It’s a new experience, and I’m glad I got to try it.” Your behavior is important because the job you’re interviewing for may require travel in other cultures where you’ll be exposed to new foods and situations.
  5. How do I eat and answer questions at the same time? Take small bites. That allows you to chew quickly before answering the question. While dining and talking, you should ask your host questions so you have time to eat your food. But keep in mind: The main reason for the meal is to interact with your host—not to eat your food. Also, pace your eating to that of those around you so that you don’t eat too quickly or too slowly.
  6. When is a food considered “finger food”? When in doubt about how to eat something on your plate, err on the side of caution: use your utensils. This is true even for items like French fries and chicken with the bone in—foods you might eat at home with your fingers. Some of the foods that you can eat with your fingers are bacon, bread (breaking off one piece at a time), chips, hors d’oeuvres, regular or finger sandwiches, fruits and berries with the stems on. (If the stems have been removed, then always use a spoon to eat the individual berries.)
  7. What do I do if some food falls off my plate? The “five-second rule” is not in effect at a formal dinner! Should a piece of food fall on the floor, leave it and avoid stepping on it. Should a piece of food fall onto the table, use your fork to pick up the food and put it on the edge of your plate.
  8. What if I get something in my mouth that I need to take out? Should you find a bone or other unwanted object in your mouth, follow this simple rule: Remove it by the same means it went in—spoon, fork, fingers—and place it on the edge of your plate. You can disguise what you are doing by holding your folded napkin in front of your mouth. However, using the same motion taking the food out of your mouth as you did putting it in will probably go unnoticed.
  9. What do I do if I get something stuck in my teeth? By all means, do not stick your fingers in your mouth to dislodge it. Use your tongue to try to dislodge the food or excuse yourself and go to the restroom to remove it.
  10. How do I signal that I am finished with my meal? Place your fork and knife—blade side facing you—diagonally across your plate at the 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions. (The handles should be at 4 o’clock.) Don’t put used utensils back on the table.
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