You might be surprised to realize how important professional protocol is to realizing your professional, as well as your personal goals.

A study conducted by Harvard University, Stanford Research Institute, and the Carnegie Foundation revealed that technical knowledge accounts for only 15% of why a person gets a job and keeps a job. The other 85% is based on soft skills, people skills, or what is known as professional etiquette.

In the medical profession this is especially true. It’s not only important, but absolutely critical to your success that you master professional etiquette.

As you’re starting your medical career, you may be invited to a formal luncheon or dinner as part of the interview process for joining a practice. Or you may be asked to represent your school, your hospital, or your practice at a community or business event. Many of these events will include meals served formally in a dining room or a banquet hall.

Here are twelve rules of etiquette that will help you sail through a formal dining situation with grace and assurance.

  1. Eat something before you go. Remember that you’re not at this event to eat, you’re there to network with the other diners. If you’re starving when you arrive, you’ll be distracted by the food and give the impression that the real reason for the event is not as important to you as sating your hunger.
  2. Where to sit. When you enter a formal dining room with several tables and are not sure where to sit, pick a spot and simply stand behind the chair while the other diners enter. Wait to be seated until several other people arrive at your table and take your seat when others do.
  3. Cocktails. If you are attending a banquet or a pre-plated formal meal, you should not bring a cocktail with you from a cocktail hour into the dining room or order a cocktails during dinner. In other, less formal situations, take your cue from the host. At a restaurant, for example, if your host orders a cocktail, you should feel free to order one as well.
  4. Cellphones. Either turn your cellphone off or set it to silent or vibrate. If you are expecting an important call during dinner, let everyone at the table know in advance and apologize for the inconvenience this may cause. If you actually need to take an important call during dinner, excuse yourself and take the call outside the dining room. Never engage in a phone call at a dinner table.
  5. Dinner napkins. When everyone is seated at your table, place your dinner napkin in your lap. If you need to leave the table during the meal, put the napkin on your chair, not back on the table. The napkin should only go back on the table at the very end of the meal. Naturally, you should never tuck a dinner napkin into the top of your shirt.
  6. Purses, briefcases, etc. Nothing other than the dinner items should ever be on the dinner table. Put your purse or briefcase on the floor. Don’t put your cellphone on the table. You should never be checking messages or emails during a formal dinner.
  7. When to begin. If there is a host or hostess at your table, wait until that person begins to eat. If there is no hostess, wait until everyone at the table has been served. If the table is very large, it’s appropriate to wait until most of the people near you have been served before you begin to eat.
  8. Pace yourself. Remember again that you’re not here to eat—you’re here to meet and converse with the other people. It will be seen as rude and inappropriate if you immediately attack your food as though you hadn’t eaten all day. Take note of the pace of the other diners and try to match it. If you notice that everyone else has finished and you’re still eating, it’s time to stop. This is another reason that you should never arrive at a formal dinner hungry—eat something ahead of time.
  9. Reading a place setting. Become familiar with a formal place setting. Basically, the utensils are arranged from the outside in according to the number of courses that will be served. If there is a soup spoon to the right of the dinner knife on the right side of the plate, you can expect a soup course to be served first. The stemware will be arranged at the top right of the place setting ? again in the order in which they will be used. The water glass will be placed in front of the wine glass. If you have trouble identifying which bread place and water glass is yours, remember the acronym “BMW” or “bread, meal, water” and you’ll find your own plate and glass easily.
  10. Dining styles. Both American and Continental styles of eating are perfectly acceptable in any dining environment, but you should try to master both. Food is cut in the same manner in both styles. The fork is held in the left hand and is used to secure the piece of food. The knife is held in the right hand and is used to cut the food. The styles differ in how the food is conveyed to the mouth. In the Continental style, the knife remains in the right hand and the fork remains in the left hand and the food is conveyed to the mouth with the tines of the fork facing down. In the American style, sometimes referred to as the ‘criss-cross’ method, the knife is laid on the rim of the plate and the fork is transferred to right hand and the food is conveyed to the mouth with the tines of the fork facing up.
  11. Toasts. A toast of welcome may be proposed by the host of the event before the first course. You should raise your glass in the direction of the host. It’s not necessary to actually drink anything and clinking glasses is not required. A toast to the guest of honor may be proposed by the host just before the dessert course. In this instance you should raise your glass in the direction of the guest of honor. If you are the recipient of a toast, you should return the toast to the person giving it. Your speech should be short — remember the “3Bs” — begin, be brief, be seated.
  12. Ending the meal. The host at your table will signal that the meal is over by putting his or her napkin on the table. Then you can follow. If there is no host at your table, wait until most of the people around you are finished before putting your napkin on the table. Don’t refold it, just set it to the left side of your place setting.

Mastering the art of professional dining etiquette will be of great service to you throughout your medical career. When you’re confident and at ease in a social situation, you’re free to fully participate in the real reason you’re there, to network with people.

About the Author:

Wesley D. Millican, MBA, CEO and Physician Talent Officer of CareerPhysician Advisors, LP, and CareerPhysician, LLC, provides comprehensive talent solutions for academic children’s hospitals, colleges of medicine and academic medical centers across the nation. He possesses a longstanding passion for career development of all young physicians and serves as a go to career resource for training program directors and their residents and fellows. In continuing his commitment to the “future of medicine”, Mr. Millican speaks nationally at residency and fellowship programs. His Launch Your Career® Series is a proven resource for today’s residents and fellows and has served as a go to resource for program directors.