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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Business etiquette is on student menu

BY GRETCHEN McKAY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Bonnie Bland of Aladdin Food Management Services teaches students
how to make a good impression during business meals. Bonnie Bland of Aladdin Food Management Services teaches students how to make a good impression during business meals.
BILL WADE/BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE Enlarge
Proper dining etiquette might seem to be your grandmother's fondest memory, but even those of the Fast-Food Generation know 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 dos 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 dietitian for Wheeling, W.Va.-based 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 Pittsburgh, where on a recent night more than two-dozen braved the cold for a hands-on etiquette lesson taught via a four-course dinner.

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'd better get it right from the get-go.

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

Topics covered over the course of the free gourmet meal 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. "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 the proper procedures 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.

Speaking of which, here are the answers to the questions Ms. Bland posed during her class at Carlow University.

● Dining during a job interview isn't the same as going out to eat with Mom and Dad. So it's not a great idea to order the most expensive thing on the menu. To get an idea of the host's budget, ask for his or her suggestion.

● As for cherry tomatoes, eat them whole if possible to avoid the splatter of spearing; if you can't, pierce each one gently with a fork to release some of the juice, then cut into pieces with a knife. Also play it safe with asparagus by cutting the spears into bite-sized pieces.

● If someone asks for the salt, pass the pepper too.

● And once used, the utensils should never go back on the table. Instead, rest them on the side of your plate.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gretchen McKay is a writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact her at: gmckay@post-gazette.com.



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