Students mind their manners at dining etiquette luncheon

Karen Mallett, an etiquette expert, teaches students and faculty how to navigate the proper manners for eating, conversation and first impressions during a four-course meal

A proper table setting displayed at the dining etiquette luncheon in the student union building at Dalhousie.

Nothing quite sets our nerves-a-jitter and fills our hearts with apprehension the way a so-called "casual" business luncheon does.

Any number of things could go wrong, the worst of which is messing up an interview question. There might be a spill to contend with, a potential sea of cutlery to navigate, or an endless array of table manner offences to commit.

"Sometimes we make mistakes," says Karen Mallett, president and CEO of Civility Works, a company based out of Winnipeg, which provides etiquette and civility training programs to a variety of organizations across Canada.

"It's not about being better, or being perfect, or having everyone look at you and go, ‘Oh, look at the way that lady holds her fork.' People don't really care about that," says Mallett. "They do care that you smile and shake hands... they want you to make them feel welcome."

Karen Mallett's top five tips for a lunch/dinner interview:

  1. Be on time. People are late, it happens, but do not be late for an interview.
  2. Do not ask questions before your interview like, "My mom's coming to pick me up after, what time do you think we'll be done?"
  3. Be dressed respectfully, in business attire.
  4. Be able to shake hands, make eye contact, smile, and introduce yourself.
  5. Wait for direction. Don't just sit down.

And the one thing you should never do?

"Correct people or argue," says Mallett. "I'm not saying not to have an opinion, I'm very opinionated, but I don't need to win and I don't need to make anyone feel uncomfortable."

The etiquette expert dolled out her advice to an audience of more than 150 students, staff, faculty and alumni yesterday in the student union building at Dalhousie University.

"With job interviews and dinners coming up at this time of the year, it's really important to brush up on your skills," says Sarah Mahaney, a first-year law student.

The event was sponsored by the Dalhousie Career Services Center, and is part of an ongoing series of career preparation events.

Mallett explained proper etiquette between servings of a four-course meal, which included a grape, shredded parmesan salad and pecan pie. Attendees learned everything from how to properly place utensils, to what comprises an inappropriate conversation, to how to deal with alcohol.

"You don't need to drink at lunch if people are not drinking," says Mallett. "Have you been to a staff Christmas party before? Not pretty."

In our modern day, where cellphones and Blackberries abound and the simple courtesy of a hand-written note is all but lost, the rules of etiquette are that much more important, says Mallett.

"This is not brain surgery," she says. "It's not something that you'll have to go to university for 20 years to learn, but if you don't learn it, the chances of you succeeding may be a little less."

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