Knowing how to comport oneself is unarguably a positive asset; one’s demeanor over a dining table is as significant as over the boardroom table. Business meals are more than just talking shop or sealing a deal. One can be the best in one’s field or tops in one’s company, but if one messes up the business meal, no one is going to be impressed.
Employing the following business dining tips will help one make the best impression.
Invitations: Remember that the person extending the invitation is the host and is responsible for payment of the bill. When receiving or extending invitations, pay attention to special dietary needs. The host may ask about food allergies or sensitivities, kosher, halal, gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free diets. Guests should be sure to reply within 24 hours with any dietary restrictions.
Guest Duties: Guests should observe the host for cues. For example, guests should place their napkin in their lap after the host; the host does so first to signal the start of the meal. When excusing oneself between courses, the napkin is placed on the chair seat soiled side down. At meal’s end, the napkin, loosely folded, should be placed on the left of the plate after the host does so.
Silverware & Service Signals: Once silverware is used, including handles, it doesn’t touch the table again. Forks, knives and spoons should be rested on the side of one’s plate. Unused silverware stays on the table. If one is resting between bites, it’s proper to place the fork, with tines up, near the top of one’s plate; placing knife and fork across the center of the plate at the 5 o’clock position signals the server that one has finished. Service signals also include closing the menu to indicate one is ready to order; browsing an open menu gives the server the impression one is not ready.
What to Order? Guests should ask the person who invited them for suggestions on the menu. The response will provide a top and bottom price range based on the entrées recommended. A good rule of thumb is to select a moderately priced item or one of the dishes recommended.
To Drink or Not to Drink? If the host orders alcohol, guests who don’t wish to drink should simply order the beverage of their preference without an explanation. One is under no obligation to consume alcohol at lunch or any other time of the day. Polite dining companions will not comment or ask questions. If they do, simply asking, “Pardon me?” and looking at them intently should be sufficient to help them realize the impertinence of their question.
Connections & Conversation: It’s the host’s job to keep conversation going during the meal; guests must contribute with courtesy, not monopolizing the conversation, but rather asking questions and expressing interest. Light topics include books, travel, vacation, movies, and pets; topics to avoid are politics, sex and religion. If a need arises to talk to the server, one should not interrupt the flow of the conversation, but rather catch the eye of the server or slightly raise one’s hand.
Tipping: The host is the person who extended the invitation and is responsible for paying the bill. Guidelines for tipping in the U.S. for the bartender is 10-20 percent of the bar bill; for the valet, $2-$5; for coat check, $1 per coat; for the server, 15-20 percent of the bill or 25 percent for extraordinary service; and for the sommelier, 15 percent of the wine bill. The tip should reflect the total price of the bill before coupons, discounts or gift certificates.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is an international business etiquette and modern manners expert and the founder of Access to Culture.