Whether you’re operating at home or abroad, if you’re dining out with clients, bosses, or prospective employers, there’s a whole world of rules associated with the “business meal” that you need to learn. Gracing your way through dining protocol tells colleagues that you’re professional, reliable, and savvy—and this just may set you apart from the pack. Sloppiness or mistakes can put you in a bad light and even cost you a deal or a job.
Lisa Grotts, a business etiquette expert based in San Francisco, gives an example of just how important knowledge of dining etiquette can be in the professional context. “A few years back, my husband took out a college graduate for lunch to interview him for a sales position,” she says. “The young man ordered a big business meal no-no: linguine.” True to the warnings about how difficult long pasta can be to eat tidily, the hopeful interviewee splashed it all over himself. “My husband didn’t hire him; it was clear he didn’t have the boardroom polish that was needed to handle sales.”
“You don’t need to be rich or come from the ‘right background’ to have good table manners,” emphasizes Grotts, founder of the ALM Group, an etiquette and protocol consulting firm. “Knowledge of dining dos and don’ts is simply another job skill you need to acquire.”
First of all, when is it appropriate to do a business meal? According to Lydia Ramsey, a business etiquette expert based in Savannah, Georgia, business meals can be arranged “once you have established a relationship with a client or customer that you want to take a little further.” They can also be conducted with out-of-town guests you’re meeting for the first time. Usually executives, managers, or salespeople, those who are trying to cement a relationship, close a deal, or make a sale, extend the invitation.
Don’t limit your business entertaining to lunches or receptions. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea or coffee, and dinner all present occasions for meeting with business acquaintances outside the office. If it’s lunch, though, never say “let’s do lunch.” “It’s tacky and unprofessional,” asserts Grotts.
If you’re playing the host, ask your guests what types of food they like—or don’t like—and choose a restaurant accordingly, where you know the food and service are good and the atmosphere is conducive to conversation. Make arrangements ahead of time to pay for the bill. Wait until everyone has been served to bring up business.
If you’re the guest, order dishes in a moderate price range and wait for your host to start discussing business, even if it doesn’t happen until later in the conversation—or doesn’t happen at all. Be sure to send a handwritten note the next day to thank him or her.
Ordering the Right Thing
Aside from snaky pastas, what else should you avoid ordering at a business meal? “Anything you’re not really sure how to eat,” says Ramsey, president of Manners that Sell. “It’s not the time to try escargots, for example.” Other no-nos? Anything you must eat with your hands, like lobster or shrimp with tails. Even sandwiches can be problematic, unless they have easy-to-chew meat like turkey or tuna. Burgers? Too messy.
Sadly, anything with melted, stringy cheese needs to be stricken from the menu as well. That means the likes of French onion soup and pizza. “The cheese is messy and turns into chewing gum in your mouth,” says Ramsey. Stick to grilled meats or a salad. Besides being safe, you get the added benefit of eating healthy!
As to alcohol, follow a general rule: Don’t order it. A business meal is not the time to start getting tipsy; too much can go wrong. “If your host orders wine, and you do drink, just accept one glass to be polite, and sip it little by little so it doesn’t get refilled,” Ramsey suggests.
Navigating the Equipment
The first thing to do when you sit down is immediately put your napkin in your lap. Overwhelmed by the array of flatware before you? As the various courses come, use your utensils from the outside in, starting with the soupspoon on the far right and the salad fork on your far left. Don’t panic: Your glass is to the right above your knife; your bread and butter plate is on the left, above your fork.
“International dining protocol is country-specific, and cultural nuances are vast,” emphasizes Grotts. The businessperson traveling abroad therefore needs to bone up by reading books or working with business etiquette consultants.
A few helpful tips will get you started. First, learn the difference between American and Continental styles of eating, the latter of which is used in Europe. In the American style, you hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right to cut your food. When you’ve finished cutting, you put the knife on your plate and switch the fork to your right hand to take the food to your mouth.
To indicate you’re resting, place your knife horizontally at the top of your plate, blade facing in. Place the fork in the lower right-hand portion of your plate, tines up. When you have finished, bring the knife down to rest beside the fork in the lower right-hand corner.
When you eat Continental style, you keep the fork in your left hand and take the food to your mouth with the tines down. It’s not necessary to place the knife on the plate while taking food to your mouth. If you are resting or are finished, the fork is placed in the lower left-hand corner of the plate with the tines down. The knife is in the lower right.
Whichever style you start with, stick with it. “It’s not acceptable to switch midmeal,” says Ramsey.
Some specifics should be kept in mind, too. In China, always leave something on your plate when you’re finished; otherwise the waiter will keep filling it up. If you use chopsticks (many restaurants will offer silverware, so use that if you’re not good with chopsticks), don’t stick them in the bowl with the ends pointing up. “It’s a sign of death,” warns Ramsey. Instead, set them in the rests on the table.
In Japan, be prepared for smaller portions, and know that it’s rude to ask for second helpings. Gear up for a breakfast of rice, seaweed, pickled vegetables, and dried fish.
In Great Britain, you’ll quickly learn that English is not always English. If you ask for a “napkin,” you’ll get a shocked stare. You’ve just requested a sanitary pad. Request a “serviette” (serv-ee-YET) instead. “High tea” or “supper” means the evening meal Americans call “dinner.” If you want the snacky repast of pastries and sandwiches, that’s “afternoon tea,” which is served between 3 and 6 p.m.
Managing the napkin, bread and butter, soup bowl, and passing of food are all arts of their own. The study of business meal etiquette can be extensive, but will be well worth the effort. “Learning the rules is about power and confidence, because it enables you to know how to do the right thing at all times,” concludes Gotts.
As for closing that deal? For that, you’re on your own. DW
Marguerite Rigoglioso is a freelance writer based in Northern California.