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Students Polish Business Etiquette Skills

From Handshakes to Handling Soup Spoons

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Etiquette expert Jodi Smith guides students through a four-course meal at a recent Dine and Dress for success event.   

By Jill Gambon

Five seconds.

That’s how long you have to make a positive first impression, etiquette expert Jodi Smith told students at the annual Dine and Dress for Success event. A weak handshake, lackluster conversation skills or off-putting body language can instantly sabotage an attempt to impress hiring managers, clients or other professional contacts, she said.

As the guest presenter at the Career Services and Cooperative Education Center-sponsored event, Smith offered tips for making engaging conversation and broke down proper table manners for a four-course meal.

Students, many of them just months away from launching their careers, were receptive to the information.

“I want to know what to do in these situations to have a better chance in the job market,” said Brighton Tavuyanago, a junior computer science major who was among the 125 students attending the event.  Tavuyanago attended with his wife, senior Joyce Chauke, who is studying business administration. (Check out a photo gallery from the event.)
Also attending the event were representatives of four businesses who provided students with feedback as well as opportunities to expand their network of professional connections.  

“My hope is that students will build their confidence and learn a few strategies for working the room and meeting people,” said Patricia Yates, associate dean of career development.

Smith, who has written three etiquette books, kicked off the event by giving students instructions on how to mingle at a business gathering, covering everything from where to place a name badge (on the right-hand side) to how to politely excuse oneself from a conversation (hint:  don’t say you are going to use the bathroom).  Students practiced by introducing themselves to someone they didn’t know and chatting for several minutes.
“This is an unbelievable opportunity for students,” said Vincent Pesce, an accountant with Sullivan Bille, a public accounting firm in Tewksbury. Pesce, a 2010 University of New Hampshire graduate, said learning how to navigate the unfamiliar territory of professional relationships is one of the most challenging transitions for new graduates entering the workforce.

“When you start your first job, interacting with shareholders and managers can be intimidating. There is a learning process. Something like this really helps,” Pesce said.
Charles Comtois, president of Sullivan Bille and a 1982 UMass Lowell alum, has participated in several Dine and Dress for Success events. He likes to help students polish their skills while also evaluating potential candidates for jobs. After talking to a student for just a minute or two, he can determine whether or not he’ll invite them to interview for a position.

“Students may be well versed in accounting principles but not aware of the practical aspects of functioning in a professional environment,” he said. “I try to preach that this is a great opportunity for networking and learning how to make a great impression.”

At dinner, students were assigned to one of 18 tables decked with white tablecloths, china and cloth napkins. Smith guided them through each course, unraveling such mysteries as how to use a single napkin throughout the meal and how to properly eat soup. 

Fortified with the information and tips Smith imparted, senior philosophy major Derek Doubleday said he feels better prepared for some networking appointments he has lined up over spring break.

“Now I know some tips for a business lunch and how to handle myself,” said Doubleday. “It was an informative experience.”