A couple of days ago, while waiting for my client at a restaurant, I was led to a table next to a young man. He had an iPad, but it was not switched on. The man was obviously waiting for the arrival of his guests. There was a glass of water and some leftover crumbs on a small plate. He looked anxious and fidgety. A few minutes later, two well-suited gentlemen walked towards him and he stood up nervously to greet them.
Then came the uncomfortable part. The table was too small for the three of them. There was no space to place their documents and laptops. The table was near the window and the guests were positioned where they had to face the glare of the sun. The young man got up to clear his glass and plate, and even used his hands to sweep the crumbs off the table. The two gentlemen graciously helped out. But they were not smiling.
Awkward. Uncomfortable. Embarrassing. A Bad Start.
In the corporate world, business deals are sealed over a good lunch, and candidates are hired based on how they behave over a meal. Table manners do matter. And it is not just knowing which fork goes with which knife. It is about conducting yourself elegantly while achieving your main target of impressing your client or future boss. So, apart from your remembering to start with your outer utensils and moving in along the way, do take note of the following:
Check, Double Check, Triple Check
Everything. Your wardrobe, documents, location of the restaurant, people you will be meeting, traffic, etc. Dress impeccably. It shows your character. How you take care of yourself translates to how you take care of your work. Find out who and how many people you will be meeting. Dress to meet their expectations. If you are unsure of the location of the restaurant, find out a few days earlier. Arrive early. If you are required to wait inside first, ask the waiter to get you a cosy, private corner – preferably one that allows you to chat without raising the decibel of your voice.
Be Nice To The Waiters
Many CEOs and companies conduct interviews in restaurants and do what it’s called the “waiter observation”. Switching your charms on and off depending on the status of the person, are people who live their lives with a “situational value system”. The waiters are also humans, earning an honest living. So, be nice to everyone, without a care for their rank, race, religion. Who knows, the tables may turn one day, and you may end up in their position.
Be Sociable, But Professional
This is not the time to throw your head back and laugh like a hyena, no matter how relaxed the atmosphere can be. You are not eating with your friends. Maintain an air of formality and keep everything professional. Don’t drink yourself silly with alcoholic beverages. Avoid lighting up during the meal, even if your clients or interviewers do so.
Think Before You Speak
With a more relaxed atmosphere over a meal, remember this is still a test between two parties. So think strategically about how you behave and respond during the business meal. Whatever you say will be interpreted by your interviewer. For instance, saying, “Getting a car park is really horrible here,” as compared with, “It took me awhile to get a car park, but I’m glad I got it!” The former sounds negative, while the latter makes you a chirpy, positive person! Always remain focused and respond professionally.
Pick What You Can Easily Eat
You are there to talk. So don’t pick messy food that will inhibit your ability to communicate confidently. Save hard-to-eat food like ribs, spaghetti or curry to when you are with your own friends. Be careful with ice-blended drinks. The residues tend to get stuck on your teeth. Also, this is not the time to try to decipher the name of the food on the menu. If you are not sure, ask. Politely.
Don’t Wolf Down Your Food
Gluttony is not thy middle name. Take your time, take small bites, and chew before you swallow. A business meal is not for you to gorge yourself silly. That is why it is always advisable not to go on an empty stomach. Even if you are starving, wait for everyone’s food to arrive before you touch anything. This goes for even a simple meal like fish and chips. Don’t pick on the chips just because your meal arrives first. And never pick on food from your neighbour’s plate.
Utensils and Food Only – On The Table
Which means elbows off, no smart phone, name card holder, tissue paper, cigarettes, toothpicks, keys, medicine, lipstick, spectacles or false teeth. All these fall into the visual range of the people seated opposite you, and believe me, it can be very distracting. If you need to use your notebook, make sure there is an extra table or that the space is big enough to place your important documents.
Remember your BMW – Bread, Meal, Water/Wine
Your bread is always on your left, and water on your right. As food must enter from outside to your inner tummy, the same goes with your utensils. Start off with your soup spoon on your right, followed by your salad fork and gradually work your way in. If unsure, slowly take a sip of water, watch and learn what others do. If the setting for your business dining is a high-end establishment, then brush up on your etiquette beforehand so you will steer clear of mistakes and mishaps.
Don’t Slurp, Don’t Burp
Beware of actions that will generate unwanted noises – Chomping ferociously on your food, using your tongue to dislodge stuck food, sipping thirstily, blowing your nose, sneezing loudly, clink-clanking of utensils etc. It will reflect very badly on you.
Move With Grace
From the start of the meal till the end, no matter how nervous you are, handle everything with poise and elegance. Do not rush things – while eating, or talking, or passing on dishes, operate gently. Be a gracious guest and maintain a dignified persona at the interview. Last, but not least, someone spent his or her time with you and paid for your meal. So, say “thank you”. When you get home, send an e-mail to express your appreciation for the opportunity to be interviewed.
Your dining etiquette skills are the cornerstone of your executive image. Every time you improve your skills, you solidify the effective executive image you have been working hard to create. So make sure your behaviour and comportment during the meal are fully befitting a polished professional.