How to Handle a Professional Dinner: Your Complete Guide

As you make your way through college, your professional practices may start to shift. Small internships can turn into bigger commitments, you may be given more responsibility at your part-time job and you’ll start interviewing for postgraduate jobs. Also, your job may expect you to go to certain events (read: fancy events) that you haven’t been exposed to before.

As things get more serious in your career life, you may be faced with an unfamiliar situation: the professional dinner or dinner meeting. Whether it’s a lunch interview for a new position, a banquet at a business conference or a department dinner to plan for future projects, you’ll need to be comfortable so that you can focus on the matters at hand instead of which fork you should be using. We’ve laid out everything you need to know to survive a professional dinner. 

What to Wear

First things first: a professional meal demands a professional look. You need to make an impression for all the right reasons: your can-do attitude, your new ideas and your dazzling conversational abilities. The attention should be on you—not your clothes. Your outfit should fit with the setting of the meal, it should make you feel at ease and it shouldn’t be over-the-top. Not sure where to find some professional pieces? Check out our article on the five best clothing stores for your internship wardrobe.

Jesse Ohrenberger, the Assistant Director of Counseling & Programs for the Center for Career Development at Boston University, suggests keeping it simple. “If the business dinner is for networking or part of an interview, it is best to dress as you would for an interview,” she says. “That means conservative clothing... as well as minimal makeup and jewelry.” As for the debate on overdressed versus undressed, “it is better to take a suit jacket off (drape it on the back of your chair) if you are overdressed than it is to go underdressed,” Ohrenberger says. If you’re stumped on a what to wear, you can never go wrong with a smart skirt with a blouse and blazer, a suit jacket with a dressy tank and black pants or a classic dress and sweater with modest heels.

If it’s not a networking or an interview situation, your dress code will vary depending on the event. “If the dinner is at a place where you already work and is directly following the workday, you can wear what you wore to work that day,” says Ohrenberger. “If it is a special occasion at work – like an awards dinner - you may want to ask colleagues who have attended in years past.”

What to Talk About

Now that you’ve got a great outfit, it’s time to start dinner. Everyone is seated at the table, reading the menus and waiting for someone to speak. Now what do you do?

When you’ve been invited to attend a professional meeting or a dinner with a bunch of people, the host should take the lead to get things started. “Wait for your host to sit or signal that you may be seated before sitting down,” Ohrenberger says. “When you are seated next to someone you just met, you may ask them about their role in the company.” 

Asking someone else about him or herself is an easy way to get the conversation going without added pressure—people enjoy talking about themselves! Asking thoughtful questions about his or her job shows your interest and your investment in the company, which can be particularly helpful if you’re interviewing with one of these individuals. You can also ask questions about how her job has evolved over the years, a project she’s working on, or her thoughts on some industry-related news that you heard recently. 

“Again, just like an interview, it is important to do your research ahead of time,” advises Ohrenberger. “Know what is new and happening in the organization and the industry so you can ask informed questions.”

Keep in mind that if it’s an interview, you are being evaluated! “When an organization invites an interview candidate to dinner, they may be assessing several things: A, your fit with the company and employees (do they enjoy having dinner with you?), and B, your ability to be graceful and professional in that setting (important if you would regularly meet with clients during meals in the job you are interviewing for),” Ohrenberger says. 

Give and take so that you can learn as much as possible. If you’re in a dinner meeting, ask questions if you’re confused so that you’re on the same page as everyone else. Pay attention during a presentation given at a conference so that when the people at your table discuss it later you will have things to add to the conversation. As for general chatter, use this time to get to know your coworkers or new acquaintances outside of an office setting. Ask about their families, what they’re reading lately and their hobbies and interests.

Dinner Etiquette 

The scariest part of any dinner situation is a formal table setting. Ohrenberger says that collegiettes should take a look at a formal place setting diagram before the meal if they know it will be an upscale event. This diagram from The Emily Post Institute gives a good overview.

There are a few basic rules that should get you out of most trouble if you find the diagram confusing. “A general rule for flatware is to work from the outside in,” says Erin Vondra, a real estate broker, blogger and food and entertainment contributor for Cheeky Chicago.  “Smaller forks, knives and spoons are for your starter courses and the larger flatware is for your entree. If there is any flatware above your plate, that is for dessert.”

But what if there’s a glass on either side of your plate… and you don’t know which is yours? “An easy way to figure out what glass and bread plate is yours is to put your index finger and thumb together under the table,” Vondra says. “The hand that makes a ‘b’ is the side your bread plate is on. The said that makes a ‘d’ is the side where your drink glasses are placed. Drinks on the right, bread on the left.”

When ordering, both Ohrenberger and Vondra strongly encourage collegiettes to order simple, neat food. “Anything that you can imagine being messy will be, so avoid foods that require your hands, fork twirling (hello, spaghetti) and sloppy sauces,” says Vondra. 

No matter what you order, Ohrenberger says that you should be thinking of the price of your choice. While it is unnecessary to order the cheapest thing on the menu, you also should not order the most expensive item. 

For beverages, save yourself from potential disaster and stay away from alcohol. “Alcohol is not a good idea. Do not drink if you are underage, and if you are of age and the host insists, limit yourself to half a glass,” says Ohrenberger. “Generally, it's best to stick to a non-alcoholic drink like water or iced tea.”

The most important thing to remember about dinner meetings or professional dinners is that the experience is not about the food. “Eating slowly and consciously in professional settings is best. You are there more to talk about business than worry about the food, so keep that in mind the entire meal,” says Vondra.

Ohrenberger agrees, adding one other vital piece of advice: “Do not go hungry,” she says. Enjoy the company you’re with and soak it all in. You could learn a whole lot, and you may even enjoy yourself!

When Shira Kipnees, a junior at Franklin & Marshall College, went to her Major Declaration Dinner her sophomore year, she found that even though the event was unfamiliar, she had a very positive experience. “I got to meet some really cool alumni at my major's table and got to ask them about their experiences and professional expertise,” she says. “I now feel much more comfortable talking with alumni and professionals in my area of expertise.” The biggest lesson to take from a story like Shira’s is that it never hurts to go to professional events like a dinner or cocktail party, especially if they’re open invitation. It’s just another way to get more comfortable talking with others, both in professional and nonprofessional settings.

As you eat and chat with others, the fundamental manners apply. “Just remember all those lovely manners your mom taught you: No elbows on the table, do not talk with your mouth full and eat like a lady,” says Vondra. This also includes keeping your napkin in your lap when eating, as well as maintaining good posture. “Posture is probably the biggest indicator of confidence when sitting at a table, so be mindful of yours,” she says. Another bonus of good posture is that you’ll be less likely to spill something on yourself—a major plus! To learn the secrets of good posture, check out our article about how to get better posture.

Check, Please!


When it’s time to pay for the meal, you may be wondering if you should reach for your wallet. As with most social interactions, it depends on the circumstances. 

“The host should pay (but always be prepared to pay for yourself, just in case),” says Ohrenberger. This is a perfect tip to keep in mind, particularly if you’re unsure of how the meal has been put together. It never hurts to be ready, and it saves you from potential embarrassment.

If you were the one who invited someone out, you should plan on paying the check. “If entertaining clients or picking the brain of a mentor, let the waiter know in advance discreetly before you sit down that the check should go to you. Then, there is no awkwardness,” says Vondra. “Even giving them a card before the meal by arriving early is an easy way to get this done. If you were invited and are unclear on who is paying, take cues from the host, and if they expect you to pay your share, oblige graciously.” If you’re unsure of what to do when the check arrives, go through the motions of taking out your wallet so your host knows you’re ready to pay. Hopefully they’ll insist on taking care of the check!

Of course, at the end of the meal, don’t forget to say thank you to your host. Manners always matter!  

One final piece of advice: “Remember to be yourself!” Vondra says. “Not everyone is Emily Post, so relax and just try to be professional and gracious. The more you focus on being the perfect dinner guest, the less you will be able to focus on why you are having the meal in the first place. Be it selling product to a new client, interviewing with the CEO or meeting alumni in your area, focus on the goals of the meal. Once you are in that professional mode, all of your manners will fall in line as well.” 

Enjoy your meal, collegiettes!  

 

Have you ever attended a professional dinner before? Share your experience with us in the comments!