Rex Hsieh is a sophomore studying Economics and Mathematics. He has a passion for studying businesses and macro-economics. When not studying, or working as a Wasserman Career Ambassador, he enjoys writing fiction and poetry, touring art museums, and solving mathematics problems!
More times than none–especially on super-days–companies conduct interviews over the course of a meal. Instead of many-to-one “interrogations” or conversations, employers are increasingly likely to find out who you are by putting you in a seemingly less formal environment.
But, the bottomline is this is still an interview, and the only difference is the employer’s objective. They are looking more at who you are as a person, rather than you as an aggregate of your skills and experiences. In other words, they get to see how you respond in a stressful social/business situation. In many ways, a mealtime interview can be more difficult to prepare for in advance, because, obviously, there is no way to prepare for having conversations.
Thankfully, there are a few ways to make your life a little easier at these interviews.
Knowing the Basics: Food and Drinks
The first thing to do, when you are invited to a mealtime interview, is to do some research on the restaurant that you are invited to. Doing this yields several benefits: (a) you get to know the price, (b) spend less time on ordering (as opposed to networking), and (c) able to select the least mess-inducing food.
Let’s break those down. First, yes, the company will pay for the meal, and you are not required to pay for it. But, even if the interviewer explicitly states that you can order whatever is on the menu, it is always wise to order something between the cheapest and the most expensive item. Courtesy is key in any social situation. Doing some in advance prep work will help you decide what those items are.
Then, on a similar note, spending a little less time on ordering will always be be good for you, because, again, this is still an interview.
Finally, as a segue into etiquette, it is always wise to order food that will not be messy to eat, i.e. those that will involve the use of hands. Avoid anything with sauces, salad, anything hard to chew and swallow. And, the last thing you want at any social encounter is to make a scene; therefore, avoid alcohol, even if offered. In short, use your best judgment whenever possible.
On the subject of etiquette, please first note that having a socially acceptable set of manners helps throughout life. It takes a little practice, but it pays off in the long-term.
The following is not exhaustive, but rather the basics of dining-table etiquette:
- If anything falls onto the floor (i.e. napkin, utensils, and so on), it stays on the floor. It is acceptable to ask the wait staff for another one.
- Never talk with your mouth full.
- No slurping or blowing on your soup.
- Cut food into small bite sizes and bring them to your mouth.
- When you do speak and/or need to put down your utensils, never put them on your napkin or table. Place them on your plate.
- Keep your elbows off the table.
- Leave some food on your plate at the end of your meal and never request a “doggy bag” to take home – no matter how much food is leftover or how delicious the meal is.
- The interviewer should never eat alone, if they order coffee or dessert, then so should you.
- Remember the interviewer takes the lead. When ordering, follow his/her instructions.
- Express your gratitude to the interviewer for the meal. Write a thank you note within 24 hours of the meal.
Turn off or silence your phone at all times. No one likes interruptions. While we’re on the topic: no texting, tweeting, Facebook, or any other social media. Using your phone while talking to others is rude and makes you appear antisocial. The focus of your attention during the meal should be your host. Again, the interviewer takes lead of the conversation, and you are responsible for responding to his/her questions.
On the subject of talking, learn to make small talks when appropriate. We all have stories where we just looked at another person across the table and smiled in awkward silence. Again, do your homework so to avoid that. Research the company, industry, and current events in news and other areas. Be ready to talk about your hobbies. If you know who your interviewer is beforehand, do research on the interviewer.
Important: unless you are interviewing for a position to be a lobbyist, steer clear of religion, politics, or anything that can be turned into a debate. And, most people love talking about themselves. So, you can never go wrong with asking someone what they do at their organization, how they got where they are, why they work at that company, what impact has his/her work done on the community at large, and so on. Having company- or industry-specific questions is even better!
Again, this is still an interview, and every successful applicant would have already done his/her homework. On many levels, this is the place to shine above all else. Hard and technical skills aside, every applicant is still a human being; any worker desires to work with functional human beings, not automatons. If that is not convincing enough, think about your social circles.
On behalf of Wasserman Center and every professional in the workplace, I want to stress the importance of being prepared–meaning to practice everything. Script the possible situations that may come up. “Rehearse” the conversations that you might be having. Practice the table manners from having everyday meals. Go through some mock interviews if possible, and definitely attend networking sessions to hone your social skills. Every semester, Wasserman Center for Career Development has Dining for Success–an event that occurs over the span of a dinner with real employers, with more advice given by professional career coaches at Wasserman Center. Dining for Success happens every Fall and Spring semester; spots are limited and (always) go quickly (refundable deposit required during registration).