A few weeks ago we discussed going to an event alone. What to do when you get there, how to strike up a conversation with someone, and how to keep the conversation going. This week, I want to dive into one of the trickier bits of attending professional dinners: figuring out what to order.
Let's say a sales representative has invited your design team out to a fancy dinner at a brand new restaurant. Or better yet, you are on a business trip with your boss, and are taking the client out to eat at the end of the day (or vice versa). Either way, if you're like me, this scenario is a far cry from the burger joint that you spent all your time at in college. You have never been anywhere this nice before, and there is nothing on the menu under $20. You are probably already the youngest person there, and are keenly aware of how much you stand out. You don't want to order something that draws attention or makes it look like you don't know what you're doing.
First, stay calm. Whether you're feeling pretty confident or have found yourself in a full on "deer in the headlights" situation, we'll walk through this together. While I'm sure there are people who instinctively know what to do in these types situations, stuff like this has never come naturally for me. Over time, however, I have slowly become more and more comfortable and picked up a few tricks that hopefully will help.
What To Drink
In professional settings, my rule of thumb is to take cues from the people around you and drink what everyone else is drinking. If everyone else ordered a cocktail, don't order a Bud Light. If everyone is drinking craft beer, don't order a Cosmo. This is a sweeping generalization, but in my experience, women tend to order wine while the men vary between beers, wines, and cocktails. Therefore, I almost always order wine at professional events because that's what the other women in my group usually get. Ordering wine can be a tricky endeavor, but we'll get into that in a second.
First, a word on how much to drink. I once had a professor advise to have no more than two drinks at dinner, and three for the whole evening, and have always followed that rule. Even if you can handle more, a work event is not the time to be concerning yourself with reaching a particular "level" while drinking, and definitely not the time to get drunk. No matter how comfortable you are with your coworkers, you never want to be the person that people are talking about at the water cooler the next day. Or at least I don't.
Unless you were raised by a sommelier, ordering wine can be tricky in general, but it's especially difficult at an event bar with no wine list. Cocktail hours where wait staff move around the room and take orders on the spot are even worse. How are you supposed to know what to order when you don't even know what they have? My no-fail, tried and true strategy is to just order Pinot Grigio. It's easy to say, everyone likes it, and most places will have it. If they don't, just go with whatever they suggest as a substitute, it'll be close enough. It's always best to be prepared and have a drink to fall back on if you need to make a snap decision.
Another wonderful reason to order Pinot Grigio is that it is a white wine, and therefore will not stain your teeth purple. As a rule, I never order red wine. I don't care how dim the lighting is, having "wine teeth" is a bad look. That being said, some foods really do pair best with red wine (if you care about that sort of thing), so I usually tailor my food selection to match my drink order or accept the risk of wine teeth and try to drink a lot of water.
In the event that you are caught off guard and can't remember anything discussed above, order whatever the person in front of you ordered. Calmly smile and say "I'll have the same," and act like it was on purpose. If you are confident, no one will notice that you weren't paying attention when everyone else was ordering, or can't seem to recall the names of any wine, ever.
What to Eat
As if ordering drinks wasn't complicated enough, figuring out what to eat is a whole new ball game. You don't want to order anything too childish, but you don't want to order the most extravagant thing on the menu either. If you're feeling nervous and unfamiliar with the menu options, it's okay to keep it simple. But do try to stay within a few guidelines:
- Don't order the most expensive thing on the menu, but don't order the cheapest thing either. Find something that falls somewhere in the middle price range. Even if it's being paid for by someone else, you don't want to be disrespectful and take advantage of their generosity.
- Don't order something messy. Some foods are just messier than others. To avoid spilling on yourself or someone else, try to avoid foods that will end up all over your face, plate, or clothing. Likewise for foods that are just plain hard to eat neatly.
- Don't order something that has a strong smell or will give you bad breath. Even if you have gum in your pocket, this is self explanatory.
- Don't order something that looks like it could go on the kids menu. If everyone else at the table is ordering salmon, don't order chicken fingers or hot dogs. Please.
In the event that the menu isn't in English, either rely on the little descriptions provided (if there are any) or ask the server. If you aren't sure about pronunciation, point to the menu and say "I'll have this please." You can always try to give it your best guess, but if you are way off, it can be a little embarrassing. One time my friend ordered a "kee-chay" instead of a quiche ("keesh"), and we still make fun of him for it.
Moral of the Story: When in doubt, do what everyone else is doing.
The best advice I could give you for situations where you feel out of place is to do what you can to blend in. By not drawing attention to yourself, you will be able to observe the people around you and make decisions based on what you see. If you don't know what to do, just follow the lead of whoever you're with and pay close attention to what they do and how they do it. Pretend that you are confident, even if you aren't. Eventually real confidence will come.
A word about imposter syndrome: I used to think that everyone else magically knew how to handle themselves in these situations and I was the only one who felt uncomfortable. I used to worry that when I walked into a fancy restaurant, the wait staff would know somehow that my bag and shoes are from Target and kick me out. Or that the clients and fellow event goers would see how young I am and tell me I shouldn't be there. Even though I have graduated, gotten a job, and attended countless professional events, I often feel like a fraud. It's like I'm back in middle school, walking into Abercrombie and immediately feeling like the staff knew I wasn't cool and didn't belong there. This feeling is often referred to as imposter syndrome, and it's extremely common.
"People who experience Imposter Syndrome are high achievers unable to internalize and accept their success, often attributing their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as frauds." - Christine Carter, "Why So Many Millenials Experience Impostor Syndrome"
While most frequently discussed in the context of achievement at work, I believe this feeling applies to all aspects of professional life. From professional dressing to attending fancy dinners it is so easy to feel like you are pretending and really don't belong there.
In my [limited] experience, the only way to combat this feeling is to keep going, even if you are nervous. It's so important to attend that event, show up for that dinner, and keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Stand up straight, throw your shoulders back, and pretend. Eventually you will realize that you do belong, and you have every right to be where you are. Until then, however, use the tricks discussed in this post to help you ease the transition.