Business dining: Keep your tweets off the table

Proper dining etiquette might seem to be your grandmother's fondest memory, but even the Fast Food Generation knows it's bad table manners to blab with your mouth full or slurp a bowl of soup with noisy abandon. (Or at least they should.)

What might not be so clear to a college student used to grab-and-go meals are the subtleties of what's considered rude in a formal business or social dining situation. Because let's face it, good dinner-table etiquette involves a checklist of do's and don'ts. For instance:

• When ordering, do you need to consider the price of an entree if someone else is picking up the check?

• What's the best way to eat cherry tomatoes on a salad? Or spears of asparagus?

• If asked to pass the salt, should you also pass the pepper?

Just as vexing is where to put your fork or knife after you use it -- assuming you can figure out which one you're supposed to use in the first place.

Bonnie Bland is a guiding light in that murky sea of confusion.

As corporate dietician for Aladdin Food Management Services, which operates campus cafeterias for schools and health care facilities in 20 states, she's developed a "Dining for Success" class for students of all ages. That includes those at Carlow University in Oakland, where on a recent Tuesday night more than two dozen braved the cold for a hands-on etiquette lesson taught via a four-course dinner at linen-covered tables outside of university president Mary Hine's office in Grace Library.

Many job interviews are conducted during meals, oftentimes with multiple people, so table manners aren't just a good idea: They're as necessary for a student's success as a strong resume or professional Facebook page, Ms. Bland told the group. And you better get it right from the get-go.

She reminded them: "You have seven seconds to make a first impression."

Not to make them nervous.

Actually, the class is structured to put them at ease, allowing students to re-explore what they've forgotten from middle school in a risk-free environment so when it comes time to sell themselves to potential employers, they can do so in the best possible light. Accordingly, no question was too silly or basic, even the one about whether it's OK to text a friend during the interview or strike up a conversation with the waiter. (No on both counts.)

"We want them to feel really confident going into the job market," explained Allyson Lowe, chair of Carlow's political science department, who observed from a table at the rear.

Tressa Weldon, 21, hasn't landed any serious job interviews yet -- she won't earn her degree in health management services until December -- but she signed up for the course anyway to give herself plenty of time to digest the material. Unlike a lot of kids, she actually ate with her family growing up. But meals were casual.

"Honestly, we had one fork and one knife," she admits, laughing, looking at the five utensils around her plate. "This will help me learn how to behave in a social setting."

Topics covered over the course of the free gourmet meal, co-sponsored by Carlow's Career Services Center, included seating and posture (straight, but not at attention), how to order (steer clear of messy items such as pasta with sauce), whether alcohol is appropriate (limit it to one, and only if your host also orders a drink), second helpings (never!) and the importance of pacing.

"We're so used to eating on the run, but during an interview you want to slow down and savor the food," Ms. Bland said, before adding, "Make sure you don't finish before your host."

Several students, including Chanessa Schuler, 20, a junior mass media/political science major, said they had no clue so much thought went into good manners.

"I don't do a lot of this kind of eating," she said, "so this is very illuminating.

"For instance," she added with an embarrassed grin, after clanging a utensil against her place setting, "I just banged my fork against my plate, so I now know that's why you have to put it down while you're talking."

Given today's competitive job market, knowing which bread plate is yours and what to do with your napkin when you're finished eating can mean the difference between a job offer and a "Thanks, but no thanks." Or as Carlow's director of career services Cindy Smith put it, "We hear from employers that students need a wider array of soft skills" that can lose or gain a company a client. So dinner etiquette workshops and classes are increasingly more the rule than the exception on modern college campuses.

The University of Pittsburgh is another that hosts a dining etiquette workshop each year, with career consultant Karen Litzinger, and not just for graduating seniors; this year's dinner in late March will be co-sponsored by the school's First Year Experience Office in an effort to show students who are years away from a formal job search the benefit of polishing their table skills. The school also is considering a "Power Mingling" networking reception beforehand that will teach students "how to successfully navigate a reception event with food and drink in hand," according to Karin Asher, interim director of Pitt's Career Development Office.

At Robert Morris University, a formal dining etiquette dinner is organized through the Student Life department; at Duquesne University, Career Services sponsors a three-course etiquette dinner twice a year. This semester's meal, which costs students $10, will be held April 6.

Dining is definitely more casual for today's students, notes Career Services director Nicole Feldhues, who teaches the 90-minute class. At the same time, potential employers expect more than ever from those they interview.

"We want them to feel confident so they can focus on networking or selling their skills to the employer or client," she said.

Students, she said, quite often are looking for answers to the "what ifs?" that evoke fear on an interview: What if I drop something, or spill my water? But the curriculum also touches on image, and how to focus attention on a person when you're meeting face to face. Hint: Don't just put your cell on vibrate; turn it off. And no texting under the table.

She said, "We want them to know how to present themselves professionally."

Gretchen McKay: or 412-263-1419.


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