Business Etiquette: Dining

Yes, it really is almost Thanksgiving!  As I think about the holiday season, I am excited to attend parties, client lunches and dinners with coworkers.  Lately, my lunch has been a sandwich at my desk or hot dogs at the ball park, so I definitely need a refresher on proper dining etiquette as the holiday season begins.

Emily Post says “All the rules of table manners are made to avoid ugliness.  To let anyone see what you have in your mouth is repulsive, to make a noise is to suggest an animal, to make a mess is disgusting.”  

Let’s be blunt: table manners limit the grossness of the process of chewing and getting food into your mouth so your interaction with those around you can be more pleasant.  And, knowing proper table manners give us confidence – when you know what to do with your food and utensils, you can focus on conversation and building relationships.  Good table manners may well be a key factor that differentiates you from competition. 

A business meal starts with an invitation.  You should reply timely, ideally within 24 hours of receipt.                     

RSVP stands for a long French word meaning “please respond” and indicates you should inform the host if you will or will not be attending.  Regrets only means your attendance is assumed until you affirmatively tell the host you are not attending.

A common area of confusion or anxiety is where to sit. 

Ideally, the host directs people where to sit.  Guest of honor faces out into the room, to the right of the host.  

Another area of anxiety is paying for the meal. 

The person who invited should pay. 

At the end of the meal, thank you host verbally and then send a written note.  Instead of considering thank you notes an obligation, see them as another opportunity to connect with your professional contacts and make a good impression. 

Tips for Excellent Business Dining Etiquette


Place in your lap when you first sit down.  This will protect your clothing from any food or spills that may drop into your lap.  If you get up during the meal or after, loosely fold the napkin so that no soiled area shows and place it to the left of your plate setting.  Don’t tuck it into your shirt!

Pass to the Right:

It simplifies the process if food is passed in just one direction – to the right.  When someone near you on your left ask for something to be passed, it’s okay to take the more direct route and pass to your immediate left.  Always pass salt and pepper together, even if just one of them is requested.

Appropriate Time to Eat

As a guest, wait to start eating until everyone is served (at all courses).

As a host, graciously remember that good food should be eaten hot.  Once three people are served, consider giving them permission to start.  You can say something like, “Please begin and enjoy your meal if you’ve been served food.”

No elbows on the table! 

My son argues this one constantly.  Why?  Because you will invariably eat sloppily and your elbows will bump into the arms of those people sitting to your left and right.

Placement of silverware

While you’re still eating your meal, place the knife across the top of the plate, and the fork or spoon near the middle. 

At the end of the meal, place utensils side by side diagonally, at 4:20.  Servers recognize this as a signal that they are free to remove the plate. 

If a server asks you to hold on to your knife as he clears your plate, you can ask for a clean knife or place your knife on the bread plate.  Do not place it back on the table!

Drink Alcohol Responsibly

You should never feel compelled to drink and if you don’t care for it, simply say “no thank you” when its served.  If you don’t notice and wine is poured for you, just leave it in the glass.

If the host orders an alcoholic drink, presume you can too.  If not, that's a que for business talk only and follow the host's example. 

Use silverware whenever possible

Eat French fries with a fork at a business meal.  Order medium priced food that is easy to eat with a fork or knife.

What do you do with tea bags?

After steeping, let a bag drip briefly into the cup as your remove it and place it on a saucer, plate or spoon (no squeezing it with your fingers). Some restaurants serve a selection of tea bags with a small pot of hot water. It’s less messy to put the tea bag into the pot. let it steep, and then pour the tea into your cup. 

Engage in Polite conversation

Follow the direction of your host and let him/her start the business talk – after food orders are taken.  The host may want to focus on small talk and relationships outside of the professional context or accomplish certain work-related objectives during the meal.  Pay attention to the host’s cues and follow suit.

When your table manners are habit, you are free to concentrate on the most important part of a meal – participation and conversation.  Be engaged, ask questions, and don’t dominate the conversation. Enjoy your Thanksgiving with renewed confidence in your table manners!

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