Interpersonal skills are crucial to the success of any student planning a career in business, yet proper business etiquette is a skill often overlooked.

“We already assume Mays students will have academic skills, but we have a tendency to overlook soft skills,” said Martha Loudder, associate dean and professor of accounting at Mays Business School. “Based on feedback from employers, we believe this is an important area on which to focus.”

As a result, several organizations at Mays, including Freshman Business Initiative (FBI), Business Fellows and Graduate Business Career Services, host periodic etiquette dinners to educate students on how to behave appropriately in a business context. “These dinners are enrichment activities for students that provide an opportunity to teach them how to handle themselves in a business setting,” said Nancy Simpson, clinical professor and director of the Undergraduate Special Programs Office at Mays.

Certified etiquette and leadership coach Randi Mays-Knapp is often the instructor of these events. She recognizes that “many students do not know what they do not know” and works to communicate how to apply the “rules” of etiquette in a way that will help students shine.

Mays-Knapp covers a wide variety of dining etiquette topics, including approaching the table, what to do with a napkin, how to sit at the table, what to do with a jacket, knowing which glass or bread plate to use, what menu items to order and appropriate tipping. A three-course meal is typically served so students understand the proceedings of a formal meal. Students learn to pass community items to the right, such as lemons and sweeteners, and are taught not to return used utensils to the table.

“Sometimes people don’t think about how important the little things are,” she said. “For example, making sure you rest your knife with the cutting edge toward you. And using silent cues to let the wait staff know whether you are still eating or you have finished your meal.”

However, teaching proper dining etiquette is only one aspect of these dinners. Students are also advised on how to network successfully with other business professionals before and during a meal, simulating a real business situation.

“I discuss the importance of small talk and using open ended questions to get to know someone,” said Mays-Knapp. “People love to talk about themselves, so let them. They will think you are brilliant.” Tips are often given on what topics to avoid over dinner as well as what subjects are appropriate. “My goal is to make learning fun,” said Mays-Knapp. “It is a gift to work with students and help them be the best they can be.”

Mays-Knapp’s biggest piece of advice to students and adults alike is to learn to untether yourself from your smartphone. She stresses the need to remain undistracted and to “focus on people and let them know they are the most important person when you are in their presence.”

Nathan Shaub ’17 said the dinner provided an opportunity to build new relationships, reconnect with old friends and learn new skills. “While I was given many tips about table manners such as how to pass bread or eat soup, the most helpful part was our conversation with our table host. Her advice on how to carry yourself in an interview or speak to a boardroom of intimidating businessmen is something I will carry with me for a very long time.”

Claire Clayton ’17 said she had assumed etiquette and table manners were “common sense and simple. “I was blown away by just how wrong I was and impressed by how detailed each etiquette tip our instructor taught us was,” she said. “Proper etiquette is important in making good impressions when dealing with people in the business world – this I knew – but I did not realize how significant and crucial etiquette truly is in the business world until I heard some of the stories our instructor shared.”

Etiquette dinners provide a unique opportunity for students to interact with faculty and staff members, who are seated at each table and act as facilitators during the events. Not only are the etiquette dinners a favorite experience among students, but faculty and staff members also appreciate the opportunity to get to know students outside the classroom.

Although freshman etiquette dinners were considered unusual when they were first instituted at Mays Business School in 1999, Mays has always held the mentality of “Why wait?” Loudder explained that by educating students on etiquette as early as their freshman year, Mays has a greater chance at helping students continue developing these skills over time.

“The ultimate goal of these dinners is to make students more polished and articulate in interview situations,” said Loudder. “We want to help students learn how to make a really good first impression and be able to tell their individual stories.”

About Mays Business School

Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School educates more than 5,000 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students in accounting, finance, management, management information systems, marketing and supply chain management. Mays consistently ranks among the top public business schools in the country for its undergraduate and MBA programs, and for faculty research. The mission of Mays Business School is creating knowledge and developing ethical leaders for a global society.