Let’s start with a little story: It’s 12 years ago, and I’m at a sushi restaurant interviewing a candidate for an assistant editor position at the magazine I worked for. The edamame comes, and the applicant takes a pod from the bowl and puts it a third of the way in her mouth (as one does to extract the first soybean). And then, with the pod still in her mouth, one of the other soybeans flies out of the side of its casing and lands three feet from the table. From there, it rolls for another, oh, five feet across the floor.
We look at the pod—and she gets up from her seat, walks over to the bean, picks it up, and brings it back to the table.
Then she sits down and says, stone-faced, “I take care of problems.” Or maybe it was “I clean up my own messes.” (It’s been a while.) The point is: She put a point on the awkwardness—which occurs in all interviews, especially ones over a meal—by tying her handling of it to a valuable personality trait. Which was impressive.
Sort of odd, but impressive.
I didn’t hire her just because of her reaction to the soybean incident. (Frankly, I think the better move is to just leave it on the floor and laugh it off.) But it made a good impression.
Which brings me to the first of my rules for the lunch interview:
1. Don’t Squeeze the Edamame
2. React to Your Mistakes
In interviews, mistakes don’t matter as much as your reaction to them does. We tend to think of interviews as a performance. Which they are—partly. But they’re also conversations. And conversations ebb and flow. They involve awkward pauses and faux pas. Things get dropped, things occasionally fly out of our mouths (or our bean pods). You may mispronounce a menu item. You may walk into the kitchen thinking it’s the restroom. But mistakes will be made.
Truth: Lunch is potentially messy. Your nerves are too keyed up. On top of that, you have to alternately talk and eat. The thing is: This type of forced interaction’s always going to be a little weird. But know that you are an imperfect person having a conversation with another imperfect person. Acknowledging a mistake in a way that feels comfortable to you only makes you more relatable and it removes a layer of tension that was there even before you made the mistake.
3. Order the Right Food
This includes: food that is eaten with a fork.
This does not include: Anything that’s a notorious tooth magnet (think: spinach, broccoli, poppy seeds, blackberries) or anything that can’t be chewed quickly—like sushi.
When in doubt, choose the fish. Maybe a chopped salad.
4. Don’t Stare at the Menu
Glance at the menu and order something that seems (even vaguely) appealing. Better: Look at the menu online before you get there and decide on something.
5. Don’t Salt Your Food Before Eating It
Some interview etiquette sources suggest this makes it seem like you make decisions before knowing the facts (which it does), but more importantly: You may end up eating very salty food.
6. Compare Plates
If there’s a lot less food on your plate than the interviewer’s plate, you’re talking too much. If there’s a lot less food in front of him, you’re not talking enough.
7. Be Smart About Drinks
If the interviewer’s ordered an alcoholic beverage and you’d like a drink, then order one. If you don’t drink (or if you just don’t want one), then order something else. However if the interviewer orders another round, don’t do the same.
Personally, I always order club soda in situations where the other person is drinking but I would prefer not to. Club soda is basically “fun water.”
8. Finally, Don’t Do Anything That’ll Throw You Off Your Game
The tips above are great guidelines—but that’s all they are. In the end, order what you want, drink what you want, talk however much you want to, so long as it serves your ultimate goal. Don’t let the mechanics of the meal get in the way of what the lunch interview should be: an interesting conversation between two people who both want this to work out.
Interviewing over lunch can be stressful, but hey, hopefully this is the first of many meals you’ll share with your (soon-to-be) new colleagues. And hey, shameless plug here, if you’re interested in learning rules for other (occasionally awkward) professional situations, watch the video below and check out my new book Works Well With Others.