Navigating Interview Lunches and Dinners

When going to an interview, often there will be a period where you go to lunch and/or dinner with people at the institution.  Sharing a meal is a powerful point of connection for people, so this is often an important component of the interview. Unfortunately, it adds another layer of social dynamics which have to be managed on top of everything else.  This may make the interview even more stressful. Here are seven tips to navigate the interview meal successfully.

  1. The meal is PART of the interview.  Don’t get the impression you aren’t supposed to be ‘on’ during the meal or that the interview is somehow over.  The meal is an important, integral part of the interview process. This is an opportunity for the interviewers to see how you interact in a slightly different setting.  Will you be collegial or will you be difficult to work with? In this more informal setting, candidates who are not humble may be inclined to boast, those who are not positive may gripe about their previous position or co-workers, and those who are in it for themselves won’t be able to hold a back-and-forth conversation.  Treat the meal as the rest of the interview- be professional and authentic.
  2. Do not order alcohol at lunch.  If you are at dinner, if your hosts order a drink, you may order one drink and no more than one.  If your hosts do not order a drink, do not order a drink. The reasons for this should be obvious, but I will spell them out.  If your hosts do not order a drink, it may be because they feel strongly about drinking or possibly the university has rules against it.  Follow their lead. If they do have a drink, you do not have to get a drink. If you do, get no more than one because you are STILL BEING INTERVIEWED.  You don’t want alcohol to lower your inhibitions to the point of fumbling it.
  3. As with alcohol, follow the lead of the interviewers with regards to ordering appetizers, dessert, or after-dinner coffee.  If they order such, feel free to order one. If they do not, I recommend just sticking to ordering a main course. It may be considered slightly gauche to order the most expensive thing on the menu.  Don’t order just a side of fries but, if there’s an item that’s notably more expensive than most of the others, I would advise steering clear. Just order a nice, middle-of-the road entree.
  4. Attire may be slightly more relaxed than during the interview itself.  This is more true for dinner when you have probably had a chance to take a break from the interview and maybe even go back to your lodging to change.  I think it’s fine to take the tie off and maybe lose the suit jacket, but no jeans or a t-shirt. If you want to keep the same level of formality in dress you had during the rest of the interview, that is also just fine.
  5. The meal is an opportunity to have more of a conversation with the interviewers.  Ask questions and listen. Do not dominate the conversation and do not act like a stone that the interviewers need to squeeze information out of.  Even though the setting is more casual, interviewers cannot ask you about marital status, children, health concerns, etc. YOU may bring up those topics if you like, though I generally advise against it.  Focus on the job- you’re interviewing for a position, not a social engagement. If they ask about kids etc. you may answer or you may deflect the question with a response like, “Well why don’t we talk about the town?  What do you all like about living here?”
  6. You _may_ be able to bring a significant other to dinner.  If you want to do so, ask the interviewer(s) first. I personally don’t like to because I want to focus on ME doing THIS job and not muddle it with my significant other and their interests and dynamic.  I can fill her in after dinner. However, many candidates I have worked with have brought their spouse to dinner and it’s fine, as long as the spouse doesn’t dominate the conversation. If you are an introvert and your spouse is an extrovert, probably best to leave them at home.  You can’t have them overshadowing you to the point where the interviewers miss this opportunity to get to know you better.
  7. Be gracious and appreciative.  Even though the institution is footing the bill, thank the interviewers for taking care of it.  When the bill comes, one of the interviewers will take it and take care of everything including the tip.  Thank them for their time and insight into the position/town that they shared. Although not a deal-breaker, I’m always slightly irked when I take out a faculty candidate to dinner and they don’t express appreciation.  It suggests they are oblivious or just expect to be taken care of. The latter is an indicator of arrogance which I cannot abide.

Those are the most important tips.  When in doubt, just treat the dinner like any other part of the interview and you should do fine.  What else do you want to know about the interview meal? Post in the comments below!

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