By Amy McPherson
Career Services
Virginia Tech

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Dining Etiquette Questions and Answers

Q: Why a Meal Interview?

A: Employers may want to see you in a more social situation to see how you act. It is a way to continue the interviewing without the interruption of a meal.

Q: How do I eat and answer questions at the same time?

A: You may not have a lot of time to eat if you are being asked a lot of questions. Take small bites so you have time to chew, swallow, and respond to questions. Try to ask the interviewer a question to get a bite. Do not over eat if you have more interviews after the meal. It will cause you to be drowsy and uncomfortable.

Q: Is it rude or wrong to put multiple packets of sugar in tea?

A: Yes. You may use one or two packets of sugar, tear both at the same time three quarters of the way at the top of the packet, and leave the paper waste at the side of the plate. Using more than 2 packets of sugar or artificial sweetener may be seen as excessive.

Q: What do you do if there is a hair in the food?

A: You have a few choices if you find hair in the food. You can eat around it, not eat it at all, or politely ask the server to bring you another plate. In any case, do not cause a scene.

Q: Do you always pass the salt with the pepper, even if someone asks for salt only?

A: Yes, always pass the salt and the pepper together. It is also considered rude to use it first before passing it to the person who asked for it.

Q: Do you announce to the table if you need to be excused? What is the appropriate way?

A: You can excuse yourself from the table by saying, "Excuse me"; you do not need to offer an explanation. If you must leave during the meal, you can indicate whether you are finished eating through proper placement of your utensils in case the waiter stops by the table during your absence.

Q: Should one go out of his/her way to use utensils when he/she is eating finger food?

A: When in doubt, eat with a utensil rather than with your fingers, even those foods that you may eat by hand at home. If something is served on a plate, you should use utensils! Chicken, or any other meat with a bone, is not a finger food; you should use the knife and fork.

Q: If you are a slow eater, should you finish completely or just quit when everyone else is finished?

A: Try to stay with the pace of the meal so that you don’t hold up the remaining courses. If you are lagging behind, when the others are done eating, don’t make them wait on you too long.

Q: Is it ever OK to remove your jacket? If it is hot? Is it appropriate to ask? Does this differ for males and females?

A: As a general rule, follow the lead of the host before removing your jacket. If the host keeps on his/her jacket, keep yours on. If it is unbelievably hot, it is appropriate to ask the host’s/hostess’ permission. Keep in mind that some restaurants/clubs require customers to keep their jacket on during meals.

Q: What is an appropriate way to explain a food allergy?

A: Refrain from talking much about health during the meal. If you know the menu, let it be known ahead of time that you cannot eat a certain food and your host may make alternate arrangements. If the food you cannot eat is served to you at a meal, leave it. In a restaurant, order other food.

Q: Is it best to just not order a food whose name you cannot pronounce?

A: Ask the server to describe the food, and point to in on the menu.

Q: How do you wipe your mouth with the napkin? Is it considered bad etiquette to wipe one’s mouth with the napkin?

A: It is appropriate to use the napkin to wipe one’s mouth. Bring up the napkin, wipe your mouth discreetly, and place the napkin back on your lap.

Q: What do you do if the menu is fixed and you are served something you do not want?

A: It is best not to make a big deal about sending an item back – it makes people uncomfortable and interrupts the flow of the meal. If you are served something you don’t want and the menu is fixed, focus on the part of the meal that you like and eat what you can. If the order is incorrect, point it out to the waiter immediately so that it can be corrected. If for any other reason you want to return the food, tell the waiter discreetly and quietly.

Q: What is the correct response to someone accidentally sneezing on the table (near the food)?

A: Respond by saying "Bless you" and continue with your meal. If the person sneezed on your meal, don’t eat it.

Q: Should you clean your plate in any particular way? (Push all uneaten food to one side)

A: You do not have to clean your plate. It is polite to leave some food on your plate. Do not push the remaining food around on the plate.

Q: If you are wearing a nametag and are having problems with it, what is the appropriate course of action?

A: If the nametag is not sticky and keeps falling off on the table or on the floor, remove it. If the nametag is in your way, move it.

Q: What do you do if your host/hostess uses the wrong utensil? Do you follow his/her lead?

A: Do not bring it to their attention. You should eat correctly. If you don’t know how to eat a certain food, imitate the others.

Q: What do you do to the piece of food that fell off your plate?

A: If the food falls on the floor, leave it and don’t step on it. If the food falls on the table and it is a big piece, use your fork and move it to a corner of your plate. Otherwise, let it be.

Q: Where do you place the knife when you are eating?

A: Put the knife across the top of your plate when you are eating.

Q: What do you do when you drop your napkin on the floor?

A: If your napkin falls on the floor and it is within easy reach, retrieve your napkin. If you are unable to retrieve the napkin without drawing attention to yourself, ask for another one.

Q: How do you let someone know he/she has something in his/her teeth?

A: Be subtle and quiet. Do not bring it to the attention of everyone at the table and do not embarrass the person. If it is someone of importance, you may not want to cause him or her any embarrassment; so let it go!

Q: How does one indicate whether or not they are done with the appetizer? Should the fork be placed in or out of the bowl?

A: When you have finished the appetizer, place the utensil on the right of the service plate. If a service plate has not been used, the utensil should remain in the bowl with the handle to the right.

Q: Is it rude to salt your food before tasting it?

A: You should not salt and pepper your food before tasting it.

Q: What if you have a bone in your mouth?

A: If you have a bone in your mouth, remove it unobtrusively with your thumb and forefinger, and place it on the rim of your plate.

Q: If a lady were to get up during the meal, should all men get up too? Is it P.C?

A: Yes, men should get up when a lady leaves the table.

Q: Does one wait until the host/hostess starts eating his/her meal at his/her house? At a restaurant?

A: Do not eat before everyone has been served. Wait for the host. The host may ask you to start eating and you should comply with the request.

Q: What do you say when you really don’t like your meal and someone asks, "How is your meal?"

A: Be polite and say, "Fine, thank you."

Q: Is it appropriate to put eye drops (for contact lenses) in my eyes at the table?

A: No, it is not appropriate to do this at your table. You should excuse yourself for this purpose as well as for putting on lipstick, etc. Do not groom yourself at the table.

Q: What if your dinner fork falls on the floor and you cannot get the waiter’s attention?

A: Do not reach across and pick up the dropped utensils. Wait until you get the waiter’s attention and ask for new utensils.

Q: Is it OK to rest your wrists on the edge of the table in between bites?

A: Yes, it is all right to rest your wrists on the edge of the table or place your hands in your lap, but no elbows on the table!

Q: Is it better to spear or scoop food (e.g. with the scallops for appetizer)?

A: Scooping or spearing depends on the type of the food. Do not jab at your food; try to scoop and spear in the same action.

Q: Is it OK to lick your fork/spoon before putting it down?

A: Clean off utensil as much as you can when you remove it from your mouth, but do not continue licking the utensil. Licking your utensils appears that you are starving or have poor table manners. Do not put more food on your utensil than you can remove in your mouth with one bite.

Q: As a left-hander, is there anything one should do differently?

A: If you are allowed to choose your seat, choose a seat where you do not hit any other person’s elbows.

Q: How do you avoid eating a certain food? (For example, onions on a salad)

A: Eat around the food and/or move it carefully to the side of the plate or bowl.

Q: What do you do with your soup spoon when you are momentarily not eating?

A: When you are resting, place the soup spoon on the service plate or leave it in the bowl. When you are finished, place the spoon on the service plate.

Q: Is it OK to cut your salad if the lettuce pieces are too large?

A: Yes

Q: Is it okay to spread butter on my entire roll at one time?

A: No. It is appropriate to break off a bite-sized piece of your roll, butter it and eat it.

Q: Who should sit down first?

A: You should wait for the interviewer to ask you to sit down before taking your seat. If they don’t ask, wait for him/her to be seated, then sit.

Q: What do I do with my napkin?

A: As soon as everyone is seated, unfold your napkin and place it across your lap. If you need to leave the table, place your napkin on the chair. Only after the meal is over should you place your napkin on the table.

Q: What is appropriate to order for dinner?

A: Simple foods that are easily eaten with a fork and knife (meats, simple salads and soups). Avoid spaghetti or other things with red sauce, huge deli sandwiches, greasy hand held items like pizza, and gassy foods like beans, broccoli, or cauliflower. Sometimes you may not have a choice.

Q: What should I drink?

A: Water, juice, or iced tea is a safe bet. It is best not to order alcohol even if the interviewer does. One glass of wine, sipped slowly, may be acceptable. Know your own limits. You want to remain sharp and responsive. Do not consume alcoholic beverages if you are under 21 years of age! Coffee or hot tea after the meal is okay if time allows.

Q: Is it okay to sit with my legs crossed?

A: You should not push your chair back and cross your legs until the meal is completely finished. During the meal, it is advised to sit up straight and keep your legs flat or crossed at the ankle. Crossing your legs during the meal often causes you to slouch, and looks too casual.

Q: Which fork is for what?

A: You always work your silverware from the outside in. So if you have 2 forks, the outside fork is for a salad and the fork closest to the plate is for your main course. The silverware will be removed as you finish each course. There may be another fork before the salad fork for appetizers.

Q: Which salad plate, bread and butter plate, and drinks are mine?

A: Your salad plate and bread and butter plate are on the left, above your fork. Your beverages are on the right above your spoon. Remember: Solids on the left, liquids on the right.

Q: What should I do if my food is cold or doesn’t taste good?

A: If your food needs to be warmer but is not unbearable you should just eat it and not call the waitress over to avoid a scene, but if it is not edible, politely call the waitress over and explain.

Q: How do I call the waitress if I need her?

A: You can usually catch her eye but if not, you may ask a nearby server. At nice restaurants they try to check in to make sure everything is okay. Avoid getting up from the the table to hunt someone down. Remember the meal is not the main purpose for you being there.

Q: What if I get something stuck in my teeth?

A: Try to remove the lodged item with your tongue. If this does not work, excuse yourself from the table and go to the restroom. It’s a good idea to go to the restroom after the meal to check your teeth and freshen up. Toothpicks should be used discreetly and in private.

Q: What do I do to signal I am finished with my meal?

A: Your silverware should be parallel to each other with the handles resting at "3:00". If you are just resting, your fork and knife can be placed in a triangle with the fork facing down.

Q: What do I do when I don’t want to swallow something I already have in my mouth (such as an olive pit or piece of gristle)?

A: If it went in with your fork it should come out with your fork and likewise with your hands. Move it to your tongue and onto the fork and deposit it on the rim of your plate. No one should notice you doing this because the fork to mouth motion is a common one made by anyone who is eating.

Q: What do I do when the check comes?

A: Typically in an interview you are the guest and so the meal is paid for by the company. The interviewer will most likely pick up the check so you won’t have to deal with it.

Q: What should I do if I feel sick during the dinner?

A: If you really can not make it through the dinner, just excuse yourself and go to the rest room. Return when you are feeling better or have the server explain that you are not feeling well.


Key Points to Remember:

  1. Remember the purpose of the meal.
  2. Follow the lead of your host or hostess.
  3. Be discreet.


Last updated 99/11/03
© Amy McPherson, 1999