How to Survive the Fancy Dinner Party

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You perfected your cover letter and resume, you killed your internship, and now your boss is impressed. He’s invited you to the company dinner party. Excuse me, what? A fancy formal dinner party? If you’re the type that is used to eating blue box mac and cheese directly out of the pot, don’t panic. We talked to two etiquette coaches– Elizabeth Redfearn and Alexandra Kovach— on how to turn the company dinner into a fantastic networking opportunity. Read this, and stroll into that banquet hall like a Kennedy.

Have an agenda

When you get that invitation, remember it’s not about free food. “You don’t want to just show up. You want to show up with a plan,” Redfearn said. There are almost always important business contacts at the event; this is not the time to gorge yourself on Swedish meatballs and gossip with co-workers. Reach out to potential employers. Redfearn urged to talk about yourself, but don’t be too pushy. “You never ever go in and say, ‘I really want a position with your company. How can I interview?’” Redfearn said. While your agenda is important, don’t forget your manners.

Mind your introduction

Don’t underestimate that moment when you finally do say hello. Mingle with everyone, regardless of who they are. “Just because that’s the CEO, doesn’t mean you can’t go up and introduce yourself,” Redfearn said. Don’t wait for your boss to introduce you, either, because they won’t. Once you’ve scoped out that person you want to talk to, smile, look pleasant and always keep your right hand free for firm handshakes. Remember to introduce yourself with first AND last name. “There are a million people named John out there. Use your full identity and make yourself memorable,” Kovach said.

Embrace Small Talk

Both Redfearn and Kovach recommended coming to the party prepared with conversational topics. Don’t only talk about the weather. Ask about uncontroversial topics, like the new iPhone update or a new park. It’s an added bonus if you can talk about things related to your field—Harper Lee’s sequel would be a great topic for an English department. Keep up with the news, and bring up current events at the party. It shows that you’re aware of what’s going on around you. Shy? Having conversational topics pre-planned avoids an awkward stare down with a potential employer.

Listen More Than You Speak

What’s better than having conversational topics ready? Having conversational topics that force your new contact to open up. Redfearn said, “Are you from here?” is a wonderful question to ask. “You don’t learn anything from talking,” Redfearn said. While the other person is talking, listen closely. Even if the person is an absolute bore, maintain eye contact and tip your head forward; it shows interest. When you’re ready to move on, say it was lovely speaking to them, shake their hand and introduce yourself to someone else.

Keep Siri in your pocket

Redfearn and Kovach both stressed to avoid whipping out your smartphone at all cost. “You may as well go home and order a pizza right then and there because your networking night is over at that point,” Kovach said. Do you want your potential employer to think that a Snapchat of your roommate’s cat is more important than their conversation? Take any emergency calls in the bathroom. And no, your best friend’s breakup story is not an emergency.

Don’t Stress the Business Cards

“Look, the fact is, people can find your information on the Internet if they want it,” Kovach said. If you meet a potential business asset and want to follow up, ask if they have a card; most professionals do, but it’s not expected that you will.

Follow up, but do it right

Don’t rush home immediately after the party and send the email. Twenty-four hours is an appropriate time frame, so wait until morning. “College hours are not the same as business hours! Keep your correspondence between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.,” Kovach said. Think about it: do you want your employers getting an email from you at 2 a.m.? Probably not.

When you go to send off that email, check yourself. Make sure you have a professional email (looking at you, [email protected]). Use the person’s name in the salutation, keep the message brief, and sign off with “sincerely,” not “regards” or “best wishes.” This advice might seem antiquated in the age of Twitter and LinkedIn, but it’s not—market yourself as a serious candidate with business etiquette.

Learn Your Table Manners

Yes, you should stress out about what fork to use. “Who wants you entertaining their clients when you drink out of their water glass?” asked Kovach. Luckily, Redfearn has a handy way to remember which glass is yours: BMW. Bread, meal, water. Your bread plate is on your left, your meal is in the center, and your water glass is on the right. Redfearn also advises that you never ignore anyone; speak to the person on your right and left equally. As for the right fork, courses work from the outside in, but it’s rare for business dinner parties to have more than 2-3 courses. When it doubt, follow your host.

Know what you’re eating in advance

Have food allergies, or religious restrictions on what you can eat? Contact the host before. “Never put your host or hostess on the spot,” Redfearn said. Don’t ask for a special menu just because you don’t like something, though. Just eat what you do like and focus on making conversation rather than eating. Picky eater? Too damn bad. You’re not there for free food; you’re there for the networking. Go home and eat as many chicken fingers and grilled cheeses, as you want.

Be careful around the bar

There’s an open bar—it’s like a dream come true, except it’s not. “No better way to blow an opportunity than by over-indulging,” Kovach said. If you’re not 21, decline when a server offers you a glass of wine. Your future employers will be super impressed by your honesty. If you are 21, have one glass. If everyone else is having one, feel free to join, but know your limit. “The worst thing you can do is get a buzz and become comfortable as your agenda goes out the window,” Redfearn said.

Be confident

Remember: your boss invited you there for a reason. She trusts you, knows you can handle yourself and wants to help you. Market yourself, but be yourself. “Don’t sterilize yourself to fit a ‘mold’ you think they are looking for,” Kovach said. You earned this opportunity; don’t get freaked out by the term ‘dinner party.’ Relax, keep these tips in mind and rock that party like it’s your job. One day, it might be.

Kate is a senior creative writing major at Florida State University. She enjoys street art, free trade coffee, and taking Snapchats of her obese cat, Belle.

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