24 Feb

Occasionally a job candidate is required to eat a meal (lunch or dinner, typically) during an interview. This happens most often when the job requires the employee to entertain clients. The important thing to keep in mind at all times is that you are still being interviewed. It may seem like a casual, social situation to you, but it is not. They are still judging your appearance, answers to questions, and manners.

There are many published guides about dining etiquette. If you want to learn all the details about formal dining behavior, you can pick up a thick book at the library and learn the correct placement of the asparagus tongs. This guide won’t do that, though, for two reasons: most interview meals are not that formal and they are mostly about what you say, not about your food. Most interview meals are semi-formal, not formal: you may encounter a salad fork and a bread plate, but probably not a fish fork. If you are focused on the food and the formality, you are missing the point of the interview. You need to eat politely, but not as if you are Miss Manner’s chosen successor. You are really there to continue to talk about yourself. Just follow these seven general rules and stay focused on the interview.

Rule One: Follow the Leader

Pay attention to the people around you and let them take the lead first and foremost. If you see an extra utensil you have never used before, look around to see if anyone else is using it and follow his or her lead. Most guests know not to put their elbows on the table or to eat with their hands. Unless? you are taken to a rib joint, and your future boss plants his elbows on the table while he eats his ribs out of hand. It’s good to fit into the standards of the people around you. Try to be a little more conservative in your behavior than the others—they are not being interviewed after all, so they can get away with more. If there are other job candidates at the table, don’t take your cues from them, they are often making mistakes. Only follow the leader.

Rule Two: Avoid Making Noise

Don’t slurp your drink or soup. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t clang your utensils against your plate. If you do something loud (I once hit the rim of my plate with my water glass—CLANG), say “pardon me” or “excuse me” and smile a little and continue. People will forget a small gaff if you just keep going and don’t harp on it.

Rule Three: Choose Simple Food

It’s not about the food, so focus on ordering something that is easy to eat and won’t affect your appearance. Spaghetti with tomato sauce is an example of a terrible choice: it’s too easy to end up with sauce splattered on your tie or blouse and it’s tough not to end up with too big a mouth full of food. A hamburger or large sandwich is often drippy and sloppy. Beware of crumbly appetizers like bruchetta—one bite and everything goes tumbling off. Don’t drink alcohol. If it seems important to the person in charge that you have a drink with everyone, pick something with low alcohol and just sip it. You should stop drinking at half the glass: it will stop someone from getting you another. A drinking candidate looks foolish or alcoholic. If your food is giving you a hard time (it’s messy or bad), just give it up and stop eating. If asked, make a polite excuse (“I’m just not hungry” or “I never eat when I’m nervous”). Don’t complain about the food or talk in any detail about dietary restrictions or medial requirements.

Rule Four: Don’t Rush

There are a lot of little etiquette rules, but many of them boil down to “don’t rush.” Butter your bread just a bite at a time; cut one piece of meat and then eat that piece before cutting another. It would be hard to imagine a person losing a job because of poor roll buttering, so don’t sweat it too much if you do something informal without thinking. Eat small bits at a time so that when a question comes your way, you can easily swallow and answer.

Rule Five: Reply to Bad Timing with Good Manners

Someone will ask you a question while your mouth is too full to answer. What do you do? Don’t panic and try to talk with your mouth full. Don’t try to swallow too much and choke (coughing fits don’t make the best impression). Just make eye contact to show that you heard the question, put up your hand in a polite “wait a moment” gesture for just a second, and then chew and swallow. You may even take a sip of water to help the process. Offer a quick “sorry” or “excuse me” and then answer the question.

Rule Six: Use Your Napkin

Make sure you have a napkin and use it. Use it to cover a cough or sneeze; use it to stow away appetizer toothpicks or shrimp tails. What do you do if you end up with something in your mouth you can’t eat? If you have a cherry pit or bit of bone in your mouth, use your napkin to discreetly get rid of it (act as if you are wiping your mouth and pop it into the napkin). Don’t call any attention to yourself when you are doing it; although, you could turn and cough to cover up the action if you happened to be asked a question at that exact moment. Some people will just swallow whatever it is to avoid being seen spiting something out, but you should avoid choking or making yourself nauseous.

Rule Seven: Utensils Are Used from Outside to Inside

If there are two forks, use the outer one first. Leave it on the plate when you are done with your salad, then use the inner one for your entrée. If there are two spoons offered the outer one will be bigger—that’s for soup. A teaspoon might be put at the top of the plate for dessert. If it’s for coffee or tea, the spoon will come with that drink. Remember rule one: follow the leader. Look around and use what utensil other people are using if you don’t know what’s going on. There are a lot of utensil rules (with U.S. and European versions), but just keep the basics in mind. Avoid gesturing with your utensils, especially when there is food on them. Don’t eat like you are starving (i.e. too fast or too much at once). Pull food cleanly off your fork or spoon, but don’t lick the utensils. Keep your elbows off the table and the napkin in your lap—just like Mom told you to.

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