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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
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ON CAMPUS: Mind Your Manners
By Lynne Shallcross

University of Houston engineering students get a lesson in dining etiquette.

A 20-year-old mechanical engineering student sits down in front of a full place setting and tries to decide which fork to use. It might sound ordinary, but this student happens to be in an engineering career center.

With 30 of his peers watching, he tries to make the call on what to do with his napkin if he gets up to use the restroom. What does he do when he’d like a refill of his iced tea? Should his napkin be folded the same way on his lap at both lunch and dinner?

This isn’t your typical engineering workshop, that’s for sure. But Vita Como thinks students should know how to answer these questions—especially if they plan on landing a job.

Como, the director of the University of Houston’s Engineering Career Center, runs a dining etiquette workshop dubbed “The Dinner Interview” for engineering students. In 45 minutes, Como covers everything from how to greet the host to what potential employers are looking to glean from students’ behavior at the dinner table.

It’s often news to these students that the purpose of such a meal may have little to do with food. It’s an interview first and foremost, Como tells them. Eating is secondary. “If things are going well enough to where you don’t take one bite, then it’s been a great interview.”

The business meal workshop began as part of orientation for a scholarship program in the College of Engineering. But after the career center opened two years ago, Como began offering the seminars from there for all engineering students.

Many of today’s students grew up with take-out and McDonald’s, not sit-down Sunday dinners, Como says. So dining etiquette is not always a well-known area. “For some of them it’s a reminder—but for others, it’s the first time they’ve thought about it,” she says. Students each take a turn sitting at the place setting, learning which glass is theirs and what all that silverware is for. They learn that it’s best to order “neat” foods like chicken and a baked potato rather than spaghetti or peas. And they learn that yes, there is a difference in napkin-folding etiquette between lunch and dinner. (Fold the napkin into a triangle at lunch; open it entirely on your lap at dinner.)

At first, many engineering students don’t understand why learning to use the right fork is important. “They’re really bright kids—they’re engineering students,” Como says, but they are not thinking of polished dinner-table manners in the context of an interview. Como assures them the goal is not to eat, and it’s not only the answers to direct interview questions that will be judged. Potential employers look to see how the students would treat a client or conduct themselves in public. “What I try to pump them to know is that all of their behavior is going to be watched,” she says. “A company needs to feel comfortable with the fact that you will represent them well in public.”

Houston engineering students have come up with all kinds of questions about the dinner interview, including what the course of action should be when someone “steals” your glass of iced tea. Don’t worry, there’s enough to go around, Como tells them. And if you’re a vegetarian, should you order meat anyway? No, don’t change your meal preference for an interview. “But don’t gag when somebody else orders the steak,” she cautions. Como’s top three recommendations for her students? Pay attention, don’t ever drink alcohol (even if it’s offered) and remember that you’re always “on.”
Even more significant than knowing which water glass to reach for is the confidence that students gain from the workshop, Como says. They are prepared to handle a meal situation with grace and can focus on more important things—like nailing the tough interview questions.

In the end, will dining etiquette really make or break an employment offer? Better safe than sorry, Como says. “More times than not, it’s not sabotaging it. I don’t think you get the job because you have good manners—I think you risk losing the job because of bad manners.”

Lynne Shallcross is associate editor of Prism.

 

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