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Effective Dining September 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Early in my career, my company was hiring at a furious pace.  We interviewed people all the time, and rotated the “lunch slot” among our team.  When my turn came to handle the lunch interview, I had the opportunity to take a nice young woman out to the local Steak & Ale, where the vegetable of the day was green beans.  We had a typical interview lunch, until the waiter came to clear the plates.

Her plate was empty, but when the waiter lifted it away he revealed a neat semicircle of green beans, carefully hidden under the edge of the plate.  He and I both did a double-take, but she didn’t miss a beat.  She kept talking, took her napkin from her lap, covered the beans, and acted like nothing had happened.

What drove this behavior?  Had she heard it was bad form to not clean your plate at a lunch interview?  More importantly, how had she carefully hidden all those beans during the lunch without me noticing?  Certainly it was an impressive display of sleight of hand, if nothing else.

While I do not suggest hiding your vegetables during lunch, I do strongly recommend that people seeking gainful professional employment learn basic table manners.  As I attend various business functions involving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I am astounded at some of the bad behavior during meals.  I recently encouraged everyone to master the art of small talk; now I am going to ask that we all learn how to manage meals that are not wrapped in paper.

I’m not asking that we achieve a Martha Stewart/Miss Manners level of dining sophistication.  Rather, it would be good if we all know which way to pass things, how to deal with knives and forks, basic napkin management, and sharing baskets of bread.

Many people will scoff at this, insisting that the value of the meal is in the company, not in the precision of the passing.  I’d generally agree, but your actions make an impression, like it or not.  During introductory meals and interview situations, every little thing can matter.  Your Mom was right: first impressions are lasting, especially when you are talking with your mouth full.  Or, my personal peeve, placing your dirty napkin on the table while others are still eating. (Eww!)

For those who still insist that none of this should matter, I’d like to gently suggest that you may find greater success in a meal, well-managed, than you might imagine.  Your fellow diners will appreciate your knowledge of the basic table rules that can make a meal that much more elegant and enjoyable. It can’t hurt to learn the basics of courses, plates, knives, forks, and who gets which bread plate. (Easy: hold up your hands and touch your index fingers to your thumbs.  Your left hand has made a “b” and the right hand, a “d.” Your bread plate is to your left, and your drink is to your right.)

As for my lunch partner from long ago?  I can only remember two things: the image of those beans, lying on the table, and that we did not hire her.  Cause and effect?  I’ll never tell. But, would you please pass the butter?

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1. Lynn M - September 28, 2009

This was fun to read, Chuck. What a great story she left you with. Unfortunately, she came out of that empty-handed. I agree with you that putting forth your most polite and professional self is very important on a job interview. It’s very much like a first date. I think the advice is wonderful for those who are already sane enough to note the table manners type of advice as part of a checklist of how to behave on a job interview. Something tells me though, anyone who would “hide the green beans” even based on advice that one should clear their plate may not be 100% sane (or at least not living on the same cosmic plane as the majority of us). I think that is why “we did not hire her.” It’s the fear that this is only one example of what might be a very long list of odd behaviors that could show up in the workplace. It’s hard to fake sanity.

2. Steven M. Smith - September 28, 2009

Nice post, Chuck. It’s well written and it made me smile. I agree with you. Best regards, Steve

3. Wally Bock - September 28, 2009

The problem with inappropriate table manners, or for that matter dress or choice of language, is that they become the focus of attention and the fuel for memory. Neither of those is a good thing. My mother used to say that the test of good manners was that no one noticed. I’m betting there have been hundreds of those lunches where you don’t remember the manners but remember an interesting person.

4. Momentor » Blog Archive » God is in the details - September 29, 2009

[…] a fine post at The Effective CIO, titled “Effective Dining,” where Chuck Musciano talks about the importance of rudimentary table manners. It’s all part of […]

5. Andy Parkinson’s World » Blog Archive » God is in the details - September 29, 2009

[…] a fine post at The Effective CIO, titled “Effective Dining,” where Chuck Musciano talks about the importance of rudimentary table manners. It’s all part of […]

6. Bret Simmons - September 29, 2009

this is excellent advice. Everyone should brush up on their etiquette. I took a basic seminar in this once and was shocked what a pig I was! No telling how many jobs I lost at the dinner table.

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