Students converse during the dinner Image by Ed Brennen
A table of students enjoy conversation during Career Services' annual "Dine, Dress and Network Like a Pro" event at Saab ETIC's Perry Atrium.

By Ed Brennen

What’s the first thing you should do when sitting down for a meal with business associates? If your job interview includes a lunch or dinner, who picks up the check? And what do spaghetti and cherry tomatoes have in common with politics and religion?

Career Services answered these important questions and more for a capacity crowd of 72 students at “Dine, Dress and Network Like a Pro,” its popular annual event held recently at Saab ETIC’s Perry Atrium.

Over a formal three-course dinner put on by Aramark and Hospitality & Event Services, students from all majors learned what to wear, how to make a great first impression and how to confidently navigate a business meal from Director of Career Services Kerry Willard Bray and Asst. Director Serwa Addae-Adoo.

“Good etiquette and manners is about putting yourself and others at ease,” says Willard Bray, who shared tips and answered students’ questions throughout the 90-minute meal. “We hope students come away feeling more confident, whether it’s in a professional setting, at a cousin’s wedding or in a meal out with friends.”

A student passes rolls to another student Image by Ed Brennen
A student passes the dinner rolls during the "Dine, Dress and Network Like a Pro" dinner.

Here are some of the top tips that Willard Bray and Addae-Adoo shared with students:

First impressions: When networking at a reception or before a meal, Willard Bray says it’s important to keep one hand free so you can shake hands at a moment’s notice. Good eye contact and a succinct personal introduction are key. When striking up a conversation, she suggests open-ended questions (Favorite book? Dream vacation? Important mentors?), while avoiding two potentially inflammatory topics: politics and religion. If two people are deep in a conversation, don’t interrupt. Instead, approach someone who’s alone or gently join a larger group discussion.

Remember the BMW: As soon as you take your seat, Willard Bray says you should place your napkin on your lap. If you have to get up from the table, the napkin should be placed on your chair, not on the table, until you return. To help remember what belongs to your place setting, think “BMW”: your bread is on the left, your meal is in the center and your water is on the right. “It gets awkward when people are wondering which water is theirs or where their bread plate is,” Addae-Adoo says. “If students know ‘BMW,’ it helps set the tone of an event.” As for utensils, start with those on the outside (i.e. salad fork, soup spoon) and work toward your plate. And of course, keep your phone off the table at all times.

Students talk during the dinner Image by Ed Brennen
Students engage in conversation at their tables at the Perry Atrium.

Breaking bread: If there is a bread basket in front of you at the table, offer some to the person to your left, then take a piece for yourself before passing the basket to your right. When buttering a roll, don’t cut it in half and immediately butter both sides. Instead, put some butter on the side of your bread plate. Then, tear off one bite-sized piece of bread at a time and butter each piece just before you eat it.

Let’s eat: Not sure if you should order that $40 lobster on the menu? Willard Bray suggests following the lead of others at the table when choosing your entree. But it’s best to avoid ordering a messy meal like spaghetti (if it’s being served, be sure to twirl the pasta on your spoon). Likewise, if there are whole cherry tomatoes on your salad, try to eat them in one bite (as opposed to cutting them in half and risk squirting tomato juice across the table). Don’t start eating until everyone at your table has been served their dish. And when you do dig in, don’t eat too quickly; notice the pace of others at the table. If someone asks you to pass the salt, pass them the pepper, as well — proper etiquette dictates that they travel as a pair. If you are not thrilled with your food, “don’t make a big deal about it” and send it back, Willard Bray says. You don’t want to come across as difficult to a potential employer. If you have food allergies, try to check out the restaurant’s menu online before you go so you’re prepared.

Students are served their salads Image by Ed Brennen
Students are served salads as the first course of their dinner.

Footing the bill: If a potential employer is taking you out to eat as part of a job interview, they are expected to pick up the tab. Likewise, if you are going out for a business meal with colleagues, Willard Bray says that the boss (or person with the highest rank) should pay. If it is a meal with co-workers, you should expect to split the tab (but as a courtesy to the waitstaff, try to hit the ATM on the way there to avoid splitting the bill on a dozen different credit cards). As for a tip, Willard Bray suggests 20 percent.

A Big Draw

Since launching in 2005, more than a thousand UML students have taken advantage of the free career development event.

“It’s one of our most popular events of the year,” says Addae-Adoo, who has run the dinner for the past five years. “It not only helps students become more comfortable with maneuvering in a professional setting, but it’s an opportunity for them to interact with other students on campus.”

Career Services Director Kerry Willard Bray speaks to students Image by Ed Brennen
Director of Career Services Kerry Willard Bray shares etiquette tips with students during the dinner.

Jennifer Dossantos, a freshman business administration major from Medford, signed up for the dinner to learn how to conduct herself during a job interview.

“It’s important for students to learn these skills because they may determine if we get the job or not,” says Dossantos, who was surprised to learn about the proper way for buttering bread.

Ahmad Faraz, a senior civil engineering major from Peshawar, Pakistan, signed up to meet new people and develop his social skills.

“Born and raised in a small town in Pakistan, this event was really helpful for me to learn more about Western culture,” Faraz says. “The next time I am fine dining, I won’t be stressed. I will be much more relaxed and confident while enjoying my meal.”