I am not aware of anyone ever being fired or refused further consideration in an interview just because they used the wrong fork during a dinner, but I have spoken to plenty of people who were paranoid about it.
For that reason, I am dedicating this column to a discussion of what to do and what not to do during dinner. I am sure that your mother already told you these things, but since you probably weren’t listening, here goes again.
Rule #1 Skip foods with red sauces, honey, broccoli or poppy seeds. This one should not need explanation, but here goes anyway. Red sauces will always end up on your shirt or blouse. Honey will find its way to your elbow, and broccoli and poppy seeds are sure to ruin your smile 🙂
Rule #2 Bibs are not appropriate unless you are under the age of three-years-old. That includes when ordering lobster, because you shouldn’t have ordered the lobster in the first place. It’s too expensive. You’ll look like a pig. What were you thinking?
Rule #3 Clothing should fit well: not too tightly or loosely. It should not be possible to tell the exact value of the change in your pocket. Likewise, other people at the table should not be concerned that part of you is likely to pop or fall out of your garment during dinner.
Rule #4 When choosing a utensil, go for the one toward the outside of your place setting first, moving in one place each course. Generally, the salad fork will be the left-most with the fork used for the entrée between it and the plate. Dessert utensils will be above the plate toward the center of the table.
Rule #5 The rule regarding bread plates and glasses can be trickier. The official rule is that your glass will be on the right, and your bread plate on the left. Remember this according to the number of letters in the associated words. Food and left both have four letters, while drink and right both have five letters. If your host grabs the wrong glass or plate, reverse the rule and insist that they are correct!
Rule #6 The only thing sauced during a business lunch or dinner should be your entrée. If liquor (even beer or wine) is offered politely turn it down. This rule applies even if your host is drinking. Remember, they may not be the last person that interviews that day. Additionally, hangovers on the second day of the interview are frowned upon.
Rule #7 When sharing food such as an appetizer, do not double-dip. If the food is saucy, pour some onto a plate and dip from there. If this is not possible, be sure to dip from the main dish only once with any given piece of food. Backwash into the main serving dish will never win you points.
Rule #8 During dinner conversations you should avoid inappropriate topics. Certainly, discussions of religion or politics can put you on shaky ground. But you should also avoid subject matter that others find distasteful such as recent medical procedures, or any sentence starting, “When I was little my brother…”
Rule #9 Fingers are only allowed with foods with endo- or exoskeletons. Only eat these foods if they were ordered by your host. Whole shrimp is messy as are ribs. You’ll want your hosts to remember you for your witty repartee, not the way you sucked BBQ sauce from under your fingernails.
Rule #10 Wrangle the conversation. Remember it takes two for an effective exchange. That’s two minutes for them and two minutes for you, back and forth. Don’t monopolize the conversation; but equally important, you’ll need to be ready to wrestle it back your way if your host forgets you are in the room.
While this list is not exhaustive, it covers quite a bit of territory. Remember, meals on interviews are meant to be a means of seeing how you interact with others. They also serve as a slightly informal time to talk about things less technical. Eat well, eat properly and have fun. It’s what your mom would want you to do.
This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on Jan. 16, 2007.