I recently gave some tips on making small talk in a professional environment. Clearly, this is incredibly important, particularly when you’re trying to save yourself from a silence so long and awkward that you’d like to crawl under a rock somewhere.
But in addition to learning to tread small talk water at business functions, you may also be introduced into unfamiliar interview situations, such as lunch interviews or networking lunches. The fact that I had one of these over brunch this morning reminded me that this is something that isn’t addressed nearly often enough when you’re being prepped for the “real world.”
Here are a few tips for navigating an interview or networking opportunity outside the office:
If this is a lunch during the work week, go ahead and go for a suit or, ladies, a business-like dress (i.e. nothing too open, too short, or too “out there”) works, too. If this is a networking move, like mine, and the level of formality is an unknown, try for business casual - guys, this means pants that are NOT jeans and a collared shirt or ironed polo; ladies, a casual but business-like dress should do the trick, but slacks and a nice blouse are equally acceptable.
There are all kinds of urban legends about people in competitive situations not getting jobs because they lack obscure table manners. While you’re likely not going to be judged on knowing which fork to use for the millionth course, basic etiquette is essential:
Don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t talk with your mouth full, and regulate the size of the bites you take so you don’t look like a chipmunk while you chew.
Watching you cut your meat like you’re trying to kill the creature it came from is embarrassing for everyone; if you’re not sure what “proper” food-cutting etiquette is, I have no doubt there’s a YouTube video for that ... or an app.
Just as a public speaker whose eyes are glued to their note cards is extremely unappealing to an audience, staring at your food the whole time makes you no fun for your guest. Look up and be engaged - it’s important to acknowledge you’re not just here for the cuisine.
Remember your small talk tips, as they unequivocally apply here, too!
Bring three copies of your resume with you, as well as a notebook or notepad on which to take notes. If this is a legitimate interview, you’ll probably want to remember things that are said. If this is a networking lunch that might lead to an interview, you’ll definitely want to remember things that are said. Taking notes may feel collegiate, but it shows that you’re engaged, prepared, and interested in the topics at hand.
If you’re meeting with an individual and, again, the level of formality is in question or if they’ve taken time off the clock to see you, offer to pick up the check - it’s the decent thing to do. If you’re meeting with several people from a department or firm, it’s probably going on the company account.
Though you’ll probably have the presence of mind to follow the meal with enthusiastic thanks all around, be sure to also send a thank you note in some form. Whether it’s part of their job or not, these people have taken the time to meet with and consider you - you may not owe them a meal, but you definitely owe them a big “thank you!” Grace and gratitude of this nature are always appreciated and reflect very well on you.