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Dining Etiquette 101: A Guide to Surviving a Business Lunch or Dinner

by Tim Brunicardi on October 5, 2018

Whether it's with a client, your boss, or a business recruiter, talking business outside the office can be both enjoyable and productive. One way of doing this is by talking business over lunch or dinner; however, with this business outing comes some dining etiquette one should always follow.

So, what exactly are the do's and don'ts when it comes to dining etiquette in a business setting? This etiquette guide breaks down the rules you should follow before your meal, during your meal, and after your meal.


BEFORE THE MEAL

business handshake
  • Don't be late. What's worse than being hungry? Being hungry and having to wait on someone. A business lunch or dinner is just as important as a work meeting, so being late does not look good. Be sure to leave plenty of travel time so you're sure to arrive on time, or even a little bit early. If you're running late, notify your guest(s) and allow them to choose whether they'd like to wait or be seated.
  • Greet everyone with a handshake. Sometimes business lunches or dinners may include others outside the company, such as partners of the organization, donors, or clients. Whenever you meet someone you're not familiar with, introduce yourself with a firm handshake, as well as informing them of what it is you do for the company.
  • Put away your phone. It's never pleasant when the buzzing or ringing of a phone goes off, especially in the middle of an important conversation. Remember to silence your phone and put it away during the meal so that you can keep all of your focus on the conversation.
  • Remember the basics. When we say the basics, we're referring to those etiquette rules your mama taught you way back when. No elbows on the table, put your napkin on your lap, sit up straight, don't talk with your mouth full, and remember to say "please" and "thank you."

DURING THE MEAL

Now that you're seated and introductions have been made, it's time for the main course.

Salad plate 2
  • Order food that's easy to eat. While a rack of BBQ ribs or a plate of spaghetti may be tempting to order, you need to remember that foods such as these are messy to eat and can cause you to get distracted from the conversation. Always order an item that's easy to eat such as chicken, fish, or salad. (Helpful tip: Try and order something similar to your host. If they opt for a salad, consider that instead of a burger.)
  • Don't order expensive items off the menu. A majority of business lunches or dinners take place at higher-end restaurants. While you may be tempted to order the steak with lobster, by doing so can give off a bad impression of you and can be seen as rude. Stick to a middle price range unless you're the one buying.
  • Stay away from alcohol. In general, it's best not to order alcohol at a business lunch or dinner. Stick with water, coffee, or a beverage such as iced tea. If your host or others at the table order alcohol, be sure to limit yourself and pay attention to how quickly they're drinking. You never want to be the first at your table to finish your drink. (Helpful tip: Offer the host or another guest at the table to order their drink first, that way the pressure is off you as to whether or not you should order alcohol.)
  • Be mindful of the conversation. Always stay attentive and participate in the conversation at hand. While the conversation may be about business one minute, it can turn lighthearted and into something more casual the next. Even then, make sure to avoid talking about controversial topics such as religion or politics. (Helpful tip: If a topic comes up that you’re uncomfortable with, try and politely change the subject as subtly as possible.)

AFTER THE MEAL

Now that you've cleaned your plate, it's time to tackle the awkward part of a business lunch or dinner...paying the bill.

  • Signal that you're finished. When you're done eating, place the knife and fork on the plate with the handles at a 4 o’clock position. By doing this, it informs the waiter that you're done and they may remove your plate. As for the napkin, leave it placed on your lap until you're ready to leave. When you do leave, place the loosely folded napkin at the center of the setting if the plate has been removed, or to the left of the setting if the plate is still there.restaurant_bill
  • Paying the bill. In most cases, the host who invited you will pay for the bill. Be sure to thank them for buying and compliment the meal and/or restaurant if it exceeds your expectations. If you're hosting the lunch or dinner, try and subtly pay for the meal without stopping the conversation. Don't forget to thank your guest(s) for their time and for accompanying you to the restaurant. (Helpful tip: If you’re the host and a guest you invited offers to pay the bill, politely decline.)
  • Follow up. Before leaving the restaurant, be sure to exchange business cards with any new folks you may have met at the lunch or dinner. This way you can follow up with an email, thanking them and stating that you enjoyed meeting them. This will also allow you to broaden your professional network, and will come in handy if/when you work with them in the future.
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