In the corporate world, it’s common for employers and entrepreneurs to take clients out to dinner or to conduct interviews with potential employees over a meal.

But what if keeping the client’s business depended on how well you treat the service staff?

Or what if getting the job meant having better table manners than the other applicants?

According to Mary Starvaggi, a nationwide etiquette instructor, those types of situations occur all the time.

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In order to impress and retain clients, or to convince an employer to choose them for the job, Starvaggi said it is vitally important for business professionals to know how to conduct themselves properly in social situations, especially if there is food involved.

That’s why, as part of their final lesson, students graduating from IUPUC’s MBA program this summer participated in an etiquette dinner featuring Starvaggi, who walked them through real-life situations and the do’s and don’ts of fine dining.

“The way that she presented it, it was, ‘How can you make learning not so typical?’” said Sayanti Chandhuri, a graduating MBA student who participated in Starvaggi’s etiquette dinner. “Things were interesting and interactive.”

The most important thing to remember when dining in a business setting is that food should not be the focus, Starvaggi said. Instead, the focus should be on making a good impression on the other people around the table by making them feel comfortable while they enjoy their food.

Ensuring the comfort of other diners is particularly important when you are hosting a dinner as an employer looking for a new employee or as a business owner meeting with a client, Starvaggi said.

For example, when a waiter asks if anyone would like an appetizer, a client or interviewee might feel inclined to decline the offer, especially if the employer is footing the bill. In that situation, the appropriate response from the dinner guest would be a simple, “No, thank you,” the etiquette instructor said.

But as the dinner host, the polite thing to do would be to tell the client or potential employee, “I would like you to have an appetizer, so feel free to enjoy one.” Not only will that simple comment encourage the guests to enjoy the food that is offered to them, but also will serve to put them at ease during the dinner, Starvaggi said.

On the flip side, the guest of a dinner — particularly an applicant interviewing for a job — should also mind their manners as a show of respect and appreciation for the host and any other guests who might be dining with them.

For example, if a server offers food containing ingredients that a guest is allergic to, that person should simply say, “No, thank you.” Discussing food allergies would be too personal, Starvaggi said, so that sort of information should not be shared at the table.

Similarly, if a guest does not like the food they are served, the polite thing to do is to at least try and take a few bites, the etiquette expert said.

Then, if the food is still unappetizing to the guest, they should use some common etiquette practices to give the appearance of eating the food.

For example, a soup spoon placed to the side of the bowl on a serving dish indicates to the wait staff that a person is finished eating. However, if others are eating a soup that one guest does not like, that guest should leave their spoon in the resting position in the bowl so that the waiters do not take the bowl away before the others are finished. If that were to happen, other guests might feel like they should stop eating the soup, or that they should eat more quickly, Starvaggi said.

In addition to general etiquette guidelines, Starvaggi also provided a few tips and tricks to get the MBA students through some sticky situations.

One of the most common etiquette problems diners encounter is determining which bread plates and water glasses are theirs. To remedy that confusion, Starvaggi offered a simple trick.

First, diners can discreetly make the OK sign — thumb and pointer finger curled together with the three remaining fingers held straight up — with both hands while keeping their palms down. Then, they should look at the letters their hands make.

The left hand will look more like a lowercase “b,” while the right hand will look more like a lowercase “d.” Thus, each diner should use the bread plate to their left and the water glass, or drink, to their right, Starvaggi said.

Although she has been to several etiquette dinners in her time, Chandhuri said she had never heard that trick before, and likely will not forget it anytime soon.

“It sits with you when you have some kind of graphic thing attached to it,” Chandhuri said.

But the etiquette dinner wasn’t only a way for the MBA program to provide students with one final lesson in professional development — it also was a celebration of the students’ final days in the program.

In addition to dinner, the evening served as the MBA program awards ceremony, where students and community business leaders were honored for their dedication to the school and local business community.

As she prepares to graduate with her MBA, Chandhuri said she was grateful for the opportunity to sit in on Starvaggi’s interactive lesson because it provided her with one final tool in her toolbox of business practices as she prepares to move forward in her career as a professional business woman.

“Being from an HR background, communication and presentation are very important to me,” she said.


Faculty members in the IUPUC MBA program presented the following awards at the July 14 etiquette dinner:

  • Community Partner Award: Elwood Staffing of Columbus (accepted by Mark Elwood)
  • Business Strategy Game awards: Joshua Aciukewicz and Anthony Allison
  • Georgia B. Miller Award: Rania Saad
  • MBA Culture Award: Hanna Omar
  • Outstanding MBA Faculty Award: Ryan Brewer
  • Outstanding MBA Student Award: Philip Marsh
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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at or 812-379-5712.