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‘An Iced Tea Would Be Terrific’

“First he ordered a pre-meal vodka tonic. Then an appetizer. Then a salad. Then the $36 osso bucco. Then crème brûlée. Then, I kid you not, a glass of port.” So went the download of a dinner with a senior finalist who killed his chances at dinner. The problem? He thought he was on vacation instead of on display.

Navigating the eating part of any interview process can be more complex than the job talk. What if I splash tomato sauce on my shirt? Wine or no wine? How can I chew and answer questions at the same time? These are just some of the issues that can challenge even the most experienced employment candidates.

A few guidelines can be helpful.

Take control of your food practices, but don’t be annoying or superior about them. Are you a vegan? Kindly let your host know before she takes you to the city’s best barbeque place. Believe that eating veal is morally wrong? Good for you, but keep that to yourself when your dinner companion orders it. This should go without saying, but I once listened to a dinnertime lecture on this very topic.

Remember that you are on a job interview, not in the buffet line of a cruise ship. If you order the most expensive thing on the menu, your interviewers may surmise that you lack good judgment or will expect unaffordable top-of-the-line equipment and office space. Don’t let a reckless choice wreck your chances.

Eat before the meal. Seriously. Get something in your stomach so you can focus on the conversation and not so much on the food.

I find it wise to avoid spinach, stringy cheese, pastas that require twirling, or anything that comes in a shell.

Remember BMW: starting on your left it’s bread, meal, water. The napkin in the water glass or coffee cup on your right is yours. However, should one of your dinner companions take the linen that rightfully belongs in your lap, you need not share this mnemonic.

“A cocktail this evening?” It’s always wise to take your cue from others at the table. If the waitperson turns to you first, consider asking for iced tea; you can always order wine with dinner if everyone else does.

More important than navigating the food is navigating the conversation. While some dinners are designed for shoptalk, most are designed to test your social skills and organizational fit. This may require you to be interesting. If you are not normally interesting, this can be a bit of a challenge. Some people find it helpful to see a couple of movies, read a provocative book, or pick up a few magazines prior to their visit in order to engage in small talk and appear well rounded. Over-orchestration or strategic preparation? Only you can decide.

How have you navigated the meal part of interviews? Do you have any particularly memorable dinner interview stories?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user austinevan.]

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