Manners Matter

Carsi Hughes Ph.D.

In one of my recent articles I spoke of two colleagues networking over a meal. That scenario had quite an effect on many psychologists out there, particularly those that tend to eat with others in public. Specifically, over the past few months I’ve heard stories of embarrassment, humbling, fear, and confusion when it comes to dining out. Though I did not expect to be consulted as a veritable Ms. Manners, it seems that in our profession there is a paucity of information regarding mealtime etiquette and dining skills. I beg your indulgence as I derail from my usual content and instead share the etiquette –related questions I’ve received since the last article.

Q: When eating with someone in a restaurant, I have a hard time keeping eye contact. It seem like I’m staring into their eyes and I feel like I’m crossing a personal boundary. However, if I look around the restaurant or through a menu, I am afraid I’ll seem disinterested.

When you are sitting with someone at a table, it is imperative that you stay focused on the conversation and appear interested. Eye contact is the best way to do that. If you are uncomfortable with sustained eye contact, try looking at the space between and slightly above their eyes. By looking into this safety zone, you will appear to be maintaining eye contact but your comfort level should improve.

Q. I went to a casual restaurant with a potential employee and we were seated at a booth. Should I have sat next to her (the view was much better) or across from her?

A. Across from her, regardless of view.

Q. I was with a group of people at a restaurant and forgot the name of someone I just met. I know all the tricks to remember names, but I just forgot. Is it acceptable to just call someone “Doctor” or make up a friendly nickname like “Dude” to save face?

A. No, it is not acceptable. Say, “Please tell me your name again” and once they tell you, do your best to remember, Dude.

Q. I was with a group of colleagues seated at a table having lunch and another person entered the room. He came around to each of us at the table and introduced himself. One man stood up to introduce himself. Should I have done that?

A. Yes. If possible, you should always stand up for introductions.

Q. Why?

It is respectful, courteous, and polite.

Q. Every year at convention we get those fabulous name tags and I never know where to put them. I find myself clipping it to my belt or stuffing it in my briefcase. Where should they go?

A name badge should always be pinned near your right shoulder. This is so that when you are shaking right hands with someone, their eyes can easily see your name. This can be very helpful for new introductions reminders of those we’ve met before.

Q. Really, do table manners matter all that much? If I am hired by a potential employer, they’ll never actually see me eat.

Yes, manners matter. Behavior of all kinds matters when you are being considered for a position. When someone is sitting at a table with you, they will notice your behavior. If you have good table manners, that is good. If you do not, it is not good.

Q. I met with some colleagues for lunch and they all said grace before the meal. I do not say grace before meals. What should I do if that happens again?

A. First, if grace is said and you choose not to participate in that custom, just sit quietly out of respect for those who do. Also, until grace is said and complete, do not touch anything on the table.

Q. Not even a napkin?

Not even a napkin.

Q. About napkins—how do I manage a napkin properly in a restaurant?

A. First, wait until the host picks up their napkin. Take your folded napkin and place it on your lap, still folded. Unfold the napkin in your lap.

Q. Sounds fancy. What about for paper napkins?

A. Same routine with paper napkins.

Q. If I leave the table to use the restroom, what should I do with my napkin?

A. Place the napkin on your chair and push your chair under the table.

Q. What do I do with my napkin at the end of the meal?

A. Place your napkin on the table. Put it loosely to the left side of your plate.

Q. I was having dinner with a potential employee and I sneezed. I ended up blowing my nose in my napkin. It was terrible. What was I supposed to do?

A. Ideally, you would have had a tissue or a handkerchief with you to use in lieu of your napkin to block your sneeze. Since you did not, it was perfectly acceptable to place your napkin over your nose. However, you should never blow your nose at the table unless it is an emergency and you have a tissue in which to blow. Even in an emergency, you should never blow your nose in your napkin. Excuse yourself and do your nose blowing in the restroom. And bring back some tissues should this happen again.

Q. At convention last year I ate the wrong salad and accidentally drank someone else’s water. How do I know which one is mine?

A. Your food is to your left; your drink is to your right. Therefore, your salad plate and bread plate are to the left while your water glass and any other beverage are to the right.

In your job search, your good manners will set you apart from the norm and can only help you obtain employment. In addition to practicing manners at restaurants, if you are looking for work feel free to contact me at I will happily send you my current list of job leads and put your email on my confidential listserv to receive leads as I get them. Employers, if you are interesting in posting a position, please send the specifics to the above email address or telephone me at 312.531.2375. There is no fee to place an ad and access to the leads is free to IPA members.

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