Job interviews are hard. You should be at the top of your game regarding good communication and careful self-promotion. You should research and choose astute and insightful questions. You need to appear interested, but not overly eager, and you need to blend respect and engagement.
No matter how hard a regular office interview is, being interviewed during a meal adds a layer of stress and caution. Interaction during a meal may appear less formal, but you should never think it is less important. It may cause you to lower your guard and forget that there is a power differential (they hold the power to hire). They may be evaluating your poise or your level of sophistication. They may be trying to determine if you will you fit with their corporate culture? Common errors in manners or etiquette may count against you.
When asked, many people will say their biggest fear is knowing what silverware to use. That’s actually pretty far down the worry list. If you pause for a second, you can see others pick up the appropriate utensil and you can simply follow their lead. If they have ordered a special group meal (for example, whole lobster), it’s acceptable to mention you have never had that dish before and ask for advice for how to eat a certain dish.
There are a few actions that really are essential — your mother has told you many of them time and again:
•Let your hosts indicate where you should sit and wait until others are seated before you sit down.
•Put your napkin on your lap immediately.
•It is generally a good idea to decline alcoholic drinks. A simple “no thanks” should suffice.
•Choose items that are easy to eat. Avoid soup, spaghetti, shrimp that need peeled, snails, corn on the cob, and other food that is messy or anything you don’t recognize.
•When the wait staff ask for your selection, preface it by saying, “I would like to have…,” not “Give me the steak,” or worse, “Can I have ….?”
•When bread or roles are served, do not butter your entire roll or slice of bread. When the butter is passed, put a square on your bread plate. Break off (not cut) bite sized pieces and butter each as you are ready to eat them. (Remember the 4 B’s — break bread before buttering?)
•The same goes for meat. Never cut it all at once. Instead, cut 2 or 3 bite sized pieces at a time. Finish those before you cut more.
•Never blow your nose at the table and never use your napkin as a tissue (even if it is paper). If you have a coughing spell, excuse yourself from the table until it is over.
•Don’t talk or laugh with your mouth full. They will wait for you to swallow before you answer.
•Don’t be too loud or too familiar. Because of the camaraderie, people tend to let their guard down during a meal.
•Don’t be the only person ordering dessert or after dinner coffee. If all your hosts decline, they may be trying to manage their time and giving you a signal.
•When you are finished with your meal, place both your knife and fork on your plate at a diagonal. This signals the wait staff that you are finished and they can remove your plate.
•When you leave the table, loosely fold your napkin and place it beside your plate. Never make it into a ball or put it on your plate or leave it on your seat.
Those are the basics. They seem so minor and simplistic, yet they are things that many well-mannered individuals notice when dining in a more formal setting. There is, however, one more critical point:
•Manners and etiquette will only get you so far. By the end of the meal, make sure the company knows who you are, why you want to work for them, and what you will bring to the table if they hire you. It is easy to get caught up in demonstrating your sociability, and lose sight of the overall goal…getting the job!