Informational Interview Etiquette Answers

Cups Under Espresso Machine PortafilterI received a very nice email from a graduate student who was seeking answers to coffee meeting and informational interview etiquette dilemmas. He wrote:

I found your “Coffee Date Dilemmas” (blog post) very informative and helpful, with its consideration of small but important details, and enjoyed browsing your blog.

I do have a few follow-up questions, if you have a moment.

I’m a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and was recently introduced via email to a few contacts in the industry. I’m meeting them for a basic informational interview to better understand roles in the industry, and to possibly parlay the meetings into an internship in the summer.

I have a few related etiquette questions.

1. When first emailing industry contacts, what is the most appropriate greeting? I usually use Dear Firstname Lastname, but like you mentioned elsewhere on your blog, sometimes that seems overly formal. However, I don’t want to disrespect anyone. Is it okay to write Hello Firstname Lastname, or Hello Firstname? Using “Mr” and “Ms” titles feels even more formal, so I usually skip honorifics unless writing academics.

2. I have a few coffee meetings set up. On one hand, I’d like to pay for the coffee, since I initiated the meeting. On the other hand, I’m still a student and worry that they will refuse or even offer to pay for my coffee. One solution is to arrive a bit early and to pre-buy the coffee. Would this be acceptable, or is it rude not to wait for the other person?

Simultaneously ordering/deciding who pays/introducing seems like a lot to handle at once, so I’d like to avoid the potential for awkwardness.

3. Should I describe myself when we finally agree to meet? In an email with a female contact, she described herself and offered her phone number, so I did the same.

However, I also have to confirm a meeting with a male manager, and I think it might be awkward to describe myself.

4. Is it ever okay to ask about an internship directly at such informational meetings, if the conversation is going well, but hasn’t ended up there naturally?

Here are my answers to his questions.

1. When emailing people you haven’t met the greetings “Hello” or “Dear” are both fine. Dear is a little more formal, but it’s certainly appropriate.

As far as what names to use, I don’t care for Firstname Lastname because it can appear that you don’t know if the person is male or female. Maybe I’m just sensitive to this because my name is androgynous and I assume when strangers address me as Arden Clise they don’t know if I’m a man or woman.

As far as using honorifics (Mr., Ms, Dr.) and the person’s last name please refer to this blog post.

If you are introduced by email or was referred by someone it would be fine to use the person’s first name unless the person who introduced you also used an honorific and the contact’s last name.

2. I know it’s hard when you’re a student to pay for a lot of coffee dates. And, you’re right; the people you’re meeting with may want to pay for your coffee.

Typically the person who called the meeting pays for the coffee or the meal. I don’t advocate buying the drinks in advance because the person you’re meeting with may be a tea drinker or want decaf or something else. Instead, make sure you get to the coffee shop early and when the person arrives, introduce yourself and ask him what he’d like to drink. He may accompany you to the order counter. Then order both his and your drink. If he offers to buy, refuse two times then go ahead and let him buy if he insists a third time. I say this only because you are a student. Normally you wouldn’t let someone pay if you called the meeting.

Be sure to write a thank you note for his time and for the coffee, if he paid for it.

3. Should you describe yourself before the meeting?

Yes, it’s always a good idea to give the person you’re meeting with a description of what you’re wearing or what you look like – “I have square black glasses and I’ll be wearing a gray turtleneck.” You don’t have to get personal, and I don’t think it matters if it’s a man or woman you’re meeting with.”

If any of that feels uncomfortable, you could look at the contact’s LinkedIn profile – assuming she has one – so you know not only her work and education background, but also what she looks like so that it’s easier to spot her when she arrives.

It’s also a good idea to give the person your mobile number in case she is running late and to ask for hers in case you have an emergency and need to contact her.

4. Is it ever okay to ask about an internship directly at such informational meetings if the conversation is going well, but hasn’t ended up there naturally?

I wouldn’t directly ask the person you’re meeting with for an internship, but instead ask “do you know of any internship opportunities in your company or elsewhere?” That keeps from putting the person in an awkward position if she doesn’t feel comfortable mentioning an internship at that time.

While I’m on the topic of informational interviews, here are a few additional points. Always keep the meeting to no more than 30 minutes. Listen more than talk – this is not the time for a sales job. You’re gathering information, that’s why it’s called an informational interview.

Ask the person you’re meeting with questions such as:

  • “What do you like about your job?”
  • “How did you get into your industry?”
  • “What does a typical day look like for you?”

You’ll learn a lot about the person you’re meeting with, their industry and things that you should consider as you pursue your career. And, people love to talk about themselves, so asking questions will endear you more to them then if you talk about yourself the whole time.

Towards the end of the meeting ask if your contact could refer you to others in that industry, or in a similar position. As I said above, if the conversation is going well, you could ask if your contact knows about any internship opportunities, but don’t ask her directly for one and do not ask for a job.

Good luck!


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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