A woman speaking to dinner guests.

A different kind of career prep

Etiquette dinner teaches students proper mealtime manners

For Oluwadamilola Oyenekan, a University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering (CSE) student, table manners is more than knowing which fork to use. It’s about feeling comfortable at a meal so she can leave a favorable impression, especially when dining with a potential employer.

Oyenekan is the rare college student who had dining etiquette drilled into her during high school.

“I used to attend etiquette dinners all the time in London where I went to school,” she explained. “But I hadn’t seen them here in the U.S.”

So, Oyenekan, current president of the University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and a bioproducts and biosystems engineering major, got to work.

Earlier this month, nearly 70 students from six CSE student groups attended the 2019 NSBE Etiquette Dinner. Arden Clise, certified business coach and author of Spinach in Your Boss's Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success guided the two-hour event, held just a few days before the College of Science and Engineering’s Spring Career Fair.

“Why does etiquette matter?" Clise asked the audience at the McNamara Alumni Center. "Well, knowing what to do in a business situation over a meal—whether it’s a company outing, a job interview, or you entertaining clients—is going to help you feel more confident and a lot more relaxed.” 

“Etiquette is something people notice,” Clise said.

And proper table manners really could mean landing, or losing, a coveted job, she added. “When you take your focus off the food or what’s on the table, you can focus on the relationships you have with the people at dinner,” she said.

Hear what students had to say about the etiquette dinner in this video.

Here are a few of Clise’s tips during the three-course meal:

BMW—A formal table setting can mean you’re faced with several plates and glasses in front of you, but don’t panic and wonder which glass or plate is yours! Remember the acronym BMW. That’s your bread (B) plate on your left, your meal (M) plate in the center, and your water (W) glass on your right.

Bread basket—Take a piece, if you want bread, and then pass the basket to your right. Break the roll into bite-sized chunks with your fingers to butter and eat it.

Napkin—Your napkin has only three jobs: to wipe your mouth, wipe your fingers, and protect your clothes. “It is not a handkerchief or for spitting food,” Clise emphasized.

Utensils—Once they touch your mouth, keep them on the plate. Don’t put a soiled fork on the table or use it to point at someone. Know the difference between the “Continental style” and “American style” ways of holding your utensils. (Google this!)

Ordering—Avoid hard-to-eat or messy foods, like spaghetti or bruschetta. Don’t drink alcohol over lunch. Wine at dinner is OK, but remember that moderation is key! Also consider this pointer that drew collective laughter and an appreciative “Ahh” from the students, including Samantha Volkmeier, an environmental engineering major and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) president:

“I learned that if you’re ordering wine, and you’re not super comfortable with what you’re going to pick out,” recalled Volkmeier of her favorite tip, “You can hold the menu away from your guests and circle your price range to the server or sommelier, and say, ‘I’d like to pick something from this region.’ You will sound like a connoisseur and will stay within your budget!”

Leftover food—Forget the doggie bag, and don’t ever say: Are you going to eat that? Can I have it?

Personal items—Turn off your cell phone and keep it in your purse or pocket. If you’re carrying an evening purse, place it on your lap under your napkin during dinner. Big purses should be placed under your seat.

Bonus for coffee/tea drinkers—This tip stuck out for Sierra Schultz, a SWE member and computer science major: “If you’re drinking coffee and if you’re using a sugar or cream packet, you should fold it up and tuck it underneath the plate so that it’s not visible and it’s not dirtying up the table.” Schultz added: “This will be really useful for us at professional conferences where we’re often served coffee for breakfast, or even at lunch and dinner.”

Clueless no more

In addition to NSBE and SWE members, participants included student leaders from the University of Minnesota chapters of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, oSTEM, Science and Engineering Student Board (SESB), and the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE).

“The NSBE Etiquette Dinner was an amazing experience," said Tanmay Agarwal, a physics major and SESB board member. “It filled in a lot of gaps for me between my personal knowledge and what is expected of me in the industry.”

“The knowledge I learned today will definitely go a long way in my professional and career development,” Agarwal added.

CSE students Tiffany Lim and Naura Tagiya (both seated center right, in photo below) were also glad they attended.

“I definitely would encourage students to attend if there is another one because I really learned that how I eat is really how I present myself to my colleagues and to my superiors," said Lim, SASE president and chemical engineering major. "I wouldn’t want them to think poorly of me or that I have no manners. It’s really nice to feel more confident at a business-meal setting.”

Students sitting at a dinner table.
Credit: Sebastian Alfonzo

Tagiya, who’s majoring in genetics and statistics, agreed.

“Dining etiquette gives you a leg up in the business world,” she said. “It’s sort of like golf—it’s not something that’s required to be taught, but really it’s a great skill to have. Next time, I’ll definitely bring a lot more friends with me.”

Learn more about NSBE and the other student groups at the College of Science and Engineering.

Story by Pauline Oo

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