When it comes to business dining, no one wants to be “that guy”- you know the one: he orders the surf & turf while everyone else is eating tuna sandwiches, he consumes six beers at lunch, he asks about your religious beliefs, and he gets gravy in the communal butter. Everyone has a horror story to tell regarding a meal with “that guy,” and whether he ruins a business meal at which you are host, is a member of your team reflecting poorly on your small business, or simply makes you a very uncomfortable guest, the experience can be both mortifying and memorable.
(In my case this meal is one in which a guest orders plate after plate of expensive oysters and expounds on the virtues of each, while getting ever drunker on glass after glass of different expensive liqueurs–which if you know anything about food pairings, don’t even go with oysters.)
One approach to isolating yourself from uncomfortable dining experiences is to separate business from eating. However, in today’s world that is largely not possible as the work-related meal is an integral part of doing business—whether it’s a casual business lunch, a formal business dinner at a fancy restaurant, a conference “rubber chicken” banquet, or a buffet at your company holiday party.
According to a recent study, 10% of a typical Travel & Entertainment budget is spent on dining, which in some large companies amounted to over $1 million per year. While this study was of only large businesses, another broader study from 2013 found that the average total spending on business meals was $55 per week. This 2013 study also found that respondents attended (either as host or guest) an average of 3 business meals per week.
So even if your small business can’t afford to be as magnanimous with meal invitations as giant corporations, you will undoubtedly find yourself a guest of vendors or dining with peers at industry or networking events. In short, we work together and we eat together—and like it or not how you present yourself at the table will impact how successfully you can conduct business.
Common Business Meal Faux Pas
This FastCompany video provides a quick humorous look at some common faux pas:
Most small business owners are professionals, understand how a formal place setting works, (test your skill in the Interactive Place Setting Game), and don’t need to be told to avoid egregious behavior; they keep their elbows off the table, chew with closed mouths, sip from the right water glass, respect personal space boundaries, avoid touchy subjects like politics and religion, and excuse themselves to take care of personal hygiene needs.
However, sometimes etiquette requirements can be subtle and even the best mannered are prone to slip-ups. For example:
- When being asked to pass the salt or pepper, you should always pass both and always hold them from the bottom so as not to touch the shaker portion.
- Hold your knife in your dominant hand and your fork in the other, cut off one bite of food, put your knife on the edge of your plate blade facing in (NEVER on the table!), swap your fork to your dominant hand, pick up the bite of food with the fork and eat it. (Repeat as required.)
- Place your napkin in your lap (with the folded side towards you) only after everyone is seated and only after your host does so. If you leave the table during the meal, place your napkin on your chair. When the meal is completely finished, place your napkin to the left of your plate (but only after your host does).
- Always pass communal food (bread, butter, gravy, dressing, etc.) to the right. For a general table pass, you may take a piece and then pass the item on. If it is specifically requested by a dining companion (i.e. a person on the other side of the table asks you to pass the bread), you should not take a piece, and should immediately pass to the closest person to the requestor (on your right or left) who will in turn pass it along until it reaches the person who requested it.
- When you are finished with your plate, place your silverware (forks and spoons face down, knives pointed in) on top of your plate in the 10:20 position (thinking of a clock, the top portion at 10 and the bottom portion at 4).
How many of those did you know? If not very many you might want to check out this Business Etiquette course from Perdue University. It covers the basics of utensil usage, dining method, conversation, place settings, and the unexpected. Take the quiz (before and/or after) to test your business etiquette mastery.
If you really want to impress your dining companions, work though the three part Business Dining Etiquette course from the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Each video lesson is about 10 minutes long, and when you’re done you’ll be an expert on even the minutiae of business dining etiquette.
Subtle Tips for Business Meal Etiquette
While you may raise an overly proper eyebrow if you dig into your salad with your dinner fork, in most cases such missteps will go unnoticed or overlooked without prejudice—particularly if you’re dining in a causal setting. Other missteps that make your guests (especially when those guests are customers) uncomfortable, or that make you look less than competent, can have disastrous effects on your business– and you may lose a sale, be excluded from a prestigious committee, or receive less favorable purchase terms, as a result.
The following advice, for both hosts and guests, will help you avoid such unwelcome outcomes.
Tips for Hosting Business Meals
- Always Select the Restaurant
While it may seem magnanimous to allow your guests to pick the restaurant, it can cause them unnecessary anxiety. For example, they will need to guess an appropriate price range, guess at an appropriate ambiance (fancy, casual, fast food, etc.), worry about selecting a type of food you dislike, etc. By selecting the restaurant, you take all the worry and work off your guest’s shoulders, and enable them to look forward to the meal. (If you are worried that your choice will displease your guest, it is fine to first suggest the restaurant and ask the guest if it is ok, and suggest an alternate if it is not.)
- Always Pay for Everything
If you are hosting, you should pay the check and pay the tip. You may even want to provide your credit card to the hostess when you arrive, or at least instruct the hostess to hand you the check when the meal is complete. This avoids the awkward moment of a check being placed in the center of the table—which may unsettle your guests, even if you fully intend to pay.
- Understand that Guests are Taking Cues from You
Unless your guest is “that guy” he will be looking to you for hints related to the meal such as whether to order an appetizer or dessert along with the main course, whether to order an alcoholic drink, how expensive an item to select, and even when the meal is finished. Make it easy for your guests to relax and enjoy the meal by broadcasting these cues. For example, announce that you’ll be having the soup as an appetizer; give menu suggestions based on dishes you have enjoyed previously, and discuss how nice it is to have a good glass of wine with dinner. When it looks like everyone is done, place your napkin to the left of your place to signal that the meal is complete.
- Resolve Problems Professionally
As with all aspects of business and life, things go wrong, and the way you deal with these problems says volumes about you. Don’t make a scene if your reservation is not immediately honored; clearly but respectfully expedite slow service; politely request that mistakes in orders be corrected; show empathy for a server who spills on the table; and constructively explain why a bill is incorrect. Your guests will draw conclusions about how you treat your employees and run your business based on how you deal with these problems– look at them as a way to help sell your small businesses, or to highlight the type of customer or colleague you will be.
Tips for Business Meal Guests
- Remember That Every Meal is an Opportunity
In some cases you will be invited to a one-on-one meal with someone you know well. In many other cases, you will be one of a number of guests who you may or may not know. In these cases, first impressions are key– make a point of shaking hands with, and remembering the name of, everyone in your party. In other cases, the meal may be designed as an interview or screening, to figure out how to best negotiate with you, determine how you react in unknown settings or company, or to see if you are an appropriate fit for an industry committee. You may not always realize these ulterior motives, so be sure to put your best business-foot forward in all dining situations. Don’t make a scene if your hamburger is undercooked, you got fries instead of chips, or your salad came with the wrong dressing. Depending on the circumstances, detailed business talk may or may not be appropriate. But, be sure to make intelligent contributions to the conversation without monopolizing it; and try to find a way to unobtrusively provide some information about your small business—you never know when you may be auditioning for a future customer, investor, or even employer.
- Follow Your Host’s Lead
As noted above, your host should recognize that guests are looking to them for guidance and provide it unprompted. But, if that does not happen take matters into your own hands. Ask your host for suggestions on what to order, and select an item in an appropriate price range. Allow your host to accept or reject dessert menus; don’t immediately tell the server that you want the chocolate cake. Follow your host’s lead when it comes to conversation—particularly if you don’t know the other guests—this will help prevent you from stumbling upon seemingly innocuous topics that end up making others uncomfortable.
- Help Move the Conversation to Business
While some business meals are designed to be largely social, in many cases the true purpose of the meeting is to actually discuss business. A good host will want to strike the right mix between business and casual conversation and may hesitate to turn the conversation to business matters. As a guest you can help ease this transition by asking a business question yourself. While you probably don’t want to do this immediately after sitting down at the table, if you’re eating your last bite of dessert and your host hasn’t gotten there yet, do her a favor and get to the business part of the “business meal.”
Business Meal Tips for Everyone
- Order Intelligently and Eat Appropriately
It goes without saying that you probably shouldn’t order chicken wings, corn on the cob, monster drippy sandwiches, or the crab steamer basket at a formal (or even casual) business meal. But, aside from making sure that you don’t end up with food all over your face (or your shirt) and stuck between your teeth, how you eat is important too. Did you know that there is a correct way to eat soup, pasta, pizza (hint, don’t cut it with a knife and fork), sushi, ribs, and artichokes? There is. For video tutorials on how to do it right, see the Zagat Stop Eating it Wrong Playlist.
- Drink in Moderation or Not at All
While nothing says that you can’t have a drink at a business meal, nothing says you are compelled to either. If everyone at the table is drinking and you don’t want to—simply order an alternate beverage. If no one else is drinking, don’t be “that guy” and order the most expensive bottle of wine on the list, and think long and hard about whether you really want to be the only one at the lunch table with a beer. If you are the host and want a drink, but the rest of your party does not, consider forgoing it so as not to make them uncomfortable. And in any event, don’t overindulge— conventional wisdom councils to keep it to a single drink, particularly if you are driving. Your inebriated behavior is not what you want everyone to remember about the meal.
- Be Cognizant of International Customs
While you may not find your small business taking you to overseas dining functions, it may take you to ethnic restaurants in the US, and you may find yourself dining with people from other cultures. In any of those situations it is important to adjust your etiquette for your environment and your dining companions. 17 Surprising Food Etiquette Rules From Around The World provides some interesting examples, such as the Chinese considering burping a show of appreciation for the food, the Italians considering it improper to drink cappuccino after a meal, and that in Japan passing food from chopstick-to-chopstick is considered taboo (because it mimics a funeral ritual). There are as many different customs and rules as there are countries, so the best advice is to research any foreign culture with which you need to interact. Think you’re ready for anything? Take the International Business Etiquette Quiz.
A Last Word on Business Dining Etiquette
While dining etiquette is important, it most cases it won’t trump personality and ability to connect with the others in your party. Also, if you find yourself at a loss, take an unobtrusive look around for cues from your host or another guest. And, as shown in this classic clip from Pretty Woman, even the worst dining etiquette blunders can be overcome by charm, empathy, and understanding.
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