Etiquette presenter Melissa Wilson shared both tips and her personal experience on successfully navigating a business lunch or dinner.
Do you know your salad fork from your dinner one? What about the right way to fold your napkin or break bread at a formal meal? Recently, 20 students registered to enjoy a three-course meal in the President’s Dining Room that gave them these answers and plenty of other tips on customary behavior at a formal meal.
“It was definitely worth it,” said Katie Urban ’17, of the nearly two-hour event hosted by St. Kate’s Career Development Center. Urban, a fashion merchandising major, added that she felt more confident with “all the silverware rules” and her ability to impress a future boss or potential employers.
The University hasn’t offered an etiquette luncheon for a few years but the career center decided to revive it, explained director Tina Wagner, “because more of our students are traveling for research presentations and professional meetings or conferences — and they’re bound to end up eating at a table with a potential employer or someone who’s looking to hire.”
Professional development, she adds, goes beyond the ability to answer an interview question or dressing appropriately. “A lot of times you can make or break a good impression of yourself with poor table manners or social skills,” she said.
Here are a few tips from the guest presenter, Melissa Wilson, director of Career Services at University of Wisconsin–River Falls.
Small talk — ask open-ended questions such as “How long have you worked at company X” or “Can you tell me about…” versus questions like “Do you work at company X” that require only a yes or no response. “Knowing how to start and carry on a conversation with a stranger is a necessary skill in today’s world. We usually find jobs through people we know.”
Bread basket — Take one piece, if you want bread, and then pass the basket to your left. Break the roll into bite-sized chunks with your fingers to butter and eat it.
Silverware — Pick them up as needed from the outside in. Your salad fork and soup spoon are farthest from the plate. Anytime you’re done with your knife, set it down on your plate with the serrated edge inward. Never let soiled utensils touch the table cloth.
Ordering — Avoid hard-to-eat or messy foods, like spaghetti or oysters, and don’t be that person with the elaborate order. For example: I’ll take the salad but with extra tomatoes, no onions, sliced carrots on just half the plate and I only want three-fourths of the dressing, on the side — in a small dish.
Personal items — Turn off your cell phone and keep it in your purse or pocket. “The people at the table should be your priority.” Also, leave your purse on the floor to the right of your chair. “If you have to get up from the table for whatever reason, always leave from the right and return from the right.”
“Think about the first time you came to campus or that first day of class,” said Wilson to her audience; many of whom were diligently taking notes for future reference. “You feel more comfortable now, right? Well, that’s the same with etiquette. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get with it.” And if you’re stumped — don’t know what to do or forget — she adds, just look at your host. “Follow her (or his) lead,” she advised.
Good manners is universal and it should be common sense, notes participant Cheryl Bottorff MBA’17, a speech therapist at HealthEast, but basic etiquette often falls by the wayside especially when one is distracted or worried about looking good in front of others.
“We all partake in meals,” says Bottorff. “This luncheon reminded me to be purposeful and more mindful when it comes to basic etiquette. Knowing what to do and when to do it will lead to confidence and competence — and both are important life skills. In whatever ways we can elevate those, we should. That’s why I’m here.”
Nurul Roshidi ’17, an exercise and sports science major who sat across from her, agreed. Roshidi said the $10 registration fee was a small price to pay for a valuable investment in her future. Her biggest takeaway was an empowering lesson.
“I learned that it’s okay to speak with the server if something’s not right,” she says. “I didn’t know I could do this, but now I know I can. This is a great event — more students really should attend this!”
St. Kate’s Career Development Center plans to hold more etiquette events. For future dates, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the center's website.
By Pauline Oo