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A Guide to Business Dinner Etiquette

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Kim previously worked in pharmaceutical sales, where she had to wine and dine clients and participate in dinner meetings with higher-ups.

Everything you need to know about business dinners, from attire to etiquette

Everything you need to know about business dinners, from attire to etiquette

Proper Business Dinner Etiquette: 16+ Tips for Dinner With Your Boss or Clients

A formal business dinner or lunch always seems to intimidate people. It doesn’t matter if you’re new at the job or have been with the company for a while—the experience can be dreadful.

In my previous pharmaceutical sales position, I often took clients out to dinner and participated in organized dinner meetings with higher-ups at the company. Learning proper dining etiquette gave me a leg up.

Business dinner etiquette should match your professional skills, and that includes having table manners. Good table manners show respect and consideration for your coworkers, especially your boss.

Learning proper etiquette at the table can help you excel in business. In some cases, it could help you land your dream job. So I suggest you memorize these tips to prevent yourself from doing something embarrassing and, better yet, expand your skill set to excel at your job.

1. Don't be late.

Arriving at dinner late implies that you are irresponsible and inconsiderate. No one likes a non-punctual employer/coworker, so if you are late to dinner, you are automatically starting on the wrong foot.

However, if you anticipate being late, give the host a courtesy call. In the worst-case scenario, make up a funny story about why you were late. Here's a good one, "On my way here, I got pulled over. Sorry I'm late, but I had to be a good citizen."

2. Don't sit down immediately.

Wait for your boss to sit first, and strategically sit right next to them. This is the best opportunity to get to know them.

3. Be chivalrous.

If you're a guy, escort the ladies (and your female boss) or help them remove their coats.

4. Do not place your cell phone, purse, or makeup on the dining table.

Turn off your cell phone and leave it all under the table.

Traditional glassware placement at a formal dinner

Traditional glassware placement at a formal dinner

5. Start on the outside of your plate.

The basic table setting will include a couple of forks on the left side and knives on the right side. The basic rule here is to start on the outside. That means the fork farthest away from your plate is for the salad or an appetizer that requires the use of a fork. (Don't pick the calamari up with your fingers, please.)

6. Use your knife and fork.

When you cut your food, use both the knife and fork. Don't leave the fork halfway on the plate and halfway on the table.

7. Avoid slurping.

When eating soup, don't slurp! No matter how delicious it is, don't make any noise! The trick to eating soup gracefully is to dip the spoon in and move it away from you. You are less likely to spill soup on your lap.

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8. Keep your napkin on your lap.

Your napkin should be unfolded and placed on your lap, not the table. If you drop it, say "excuse me," and bend down gracefully to pick it up. No matter how badly you want to protect your new tie, don't tuck your napkin into the front of your shirt.

Do not blow your nose with the napkin; find a tissue. Better yet, keep a tissue in your purse or pocket.

9. Wait until everyone's been served.

Do not begin eating your food before everyone is served. If you start with the bread basket, don't forget to pass it to the person on your left.

Conversation Topics to Avoid at a Business Dinner

It's best to avoid any conversation topics that may be controversial or make others uncomfortable.

Politics

Religion

Sex

Drugs

Personal problems

Health problems

Money

Anything controversial

A few examples of outfits women can wear to business dinners

A few examples of outfits women can wear to business dinners

A few examples of outfits men can wear to business dinners

A few examples of outfits men can wear to business dinners

10. Eat naturally.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is, after all, a business dinner, so eat! Relax and eat! Don't talk with your mouth full. It's a good idea to take smaller bites in case you need to talk.

If you barely touch your food, it looks like you are wasteful and inconsiderate. On the other hand, don't overindulge, no matter how delicious that piece of steak is or how smooth that wine tasted. No matter how starved you are as a new college graduate, don't swallow your entire dinner in one bite, and do not order the most expensive item on the menu.

11. Order food that's easy to eat (if you can).

The type of food you order may also make it easier for you to survive this business dinner. Do not order the ribs, no matter how tempting it is! It doesn't matter how neat and experienced you are at eating ribs; it will always be messy and difficult to converse while smacking your BBQ sauce on your lips at the same time. Unless you're interviewing with Bobby Flay for a chef position, by all means, go for it.

Avoid ordering finger foods or whole chicken, as these can also get messy. The best suggestion is to order penne pasta, where you can simply eat individual "fork-size bites." There's no cutting required, and you have more options if you are a vegetarian.

In some cases, the food is ordered by the host. How do you eat a whole chicken? Use your fork and knife. To eat a whole fish, start on one side of the spine and eat from top to bottom. When you're done, gently lift the bones and discard it, instead of attempting to flip the fish over. If you catch a small bone, remove it with your fingers. If sushi is served, share!

Foods to Avoid at a Business Dinner or Lunch

  1. Shellfish: Crab, lobster, clams, and shrimp are difficult to manage. Lobster requires special equipment and a bib. That doesn’t exactly look professional. It is also generally the most expensive item on the menu.
  2. Spaghetti: This includes any noodle dish, including angel hair pasta and linguine. It’s difficult to eat this gracefully without having a strand dangle from your fork or mouth. Order another type of pasta, such as penne or bow-tie, where you can easily pick it up with the fork.
  3. Finger foods: Don’t order ribs, chicken wings, or any food you have to eat with your hands. Those items are messy and require you to wipe your hands to remove sauce constantly. Bread is okay to eat with your fingers.

12. Avoid alcohol or drink one glass of wine.

If you are on an interview, do not order alcohol, even if wine glasses are on the table. Just order iced tea or strawberry lemonade.

For other business dinners, your boss will most likely order some wine. Shadow them and order a glass of wine as well. Say something like, "Oh, that sounds good; I'll try a glass of that cabernet."

Don't order triple vodka on the rocks or a long island ice tea, no matter how badly you think you need it to calm your nerves. You may just look like an alcoholic! Usually, one glass of wine is sufficient for the entire dinner, so don't tell the waiter, "Just keep them coming, please!"

13. Dress conservatively but properly for the occasion.

Save that tight, skimpy red dress for a hot date, not to impress your host. For women, go easy on the cleavage and excess jewelry. For men, wear a tie or business casual attire, depending on the venue and occasion, and leave the t-shirt and jeans at home. The rule of thumb is: It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed for a business dinner.

14. Be polite to the restaurant staff.

If you are trying to get a job position as a sales representative that usually requires top-notch people skills, they want to see how you interact with the waiter as well. So be polite and remember to always thank the waiter. If you need to grab their attention, subtlety raise your hand or say, "Excuse me." Don't underestimate the common courtesy phrases such as "May I . . . ?" "Please," and "Thank you."

15. Don't worry about having to pay the bill.

The proper dining business etiquette for the host (in this case, your boss) is to pay for the clients. If appropriate, you can offer to pay, but the bill is usually expendable by the company anyway.

16. Don't skip coffee and dessert.

This is the time to seal the deal or close the client! If you're dining with the boss, thank them for a wonderful dinner.

Always Be on Your Best Behavior at Business Dinners

Employers are always silently observing every one of your moves during the business dinner table. They want to see how you handle yourself at the table.

Remember that you are not really there to eat; rather, you're there to accomplish a business-related goal. It is very important to remember this. No matter what you do, you are representing yourself and your company.

On that note, it's not always do-or-die, so if you slip up, don't dwell on it; just focus on the next task. The bottom line is—focus on the agenda. Breathe! You'll be fine now that you've read all these rules.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Kim Lam

Comments or Questions with Business Etiquette at the Dinner Table

Kim Lam (author) from California on May 05, 2012:

Thanks Pam. You're definitely right!

Pamela N Red from Oklahoma on May 05, 2012:

Great information everyone should read. Many people missed out on learning important table manners because of eating in front of the television.

Kim Lam (author) from California on April 21, 2012:

Thanks for stopping, Docmo! A lot of it involves having some common sense and unfortunately some people do lack that skill. I appreciate your vote!

Mohan Kumar from UK on April 21, 2012:

Superb. What may seem like simple issues can make or break impressions. You've captured the necessary advice very well indeed. I wish some people I know could read this as they seem to break several of the etiquette tips much to others embarrassment. Voted up/awesome.

Kim Lam (author) from California on March 06, 2012:

Thanks, Cindy!

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on March 06, 2012:

Wow! This hub is full of advice that all business people need to read. Great job!

CreateSquidoo on March 06, 2012:

This is a very import information for those people that are planning to work on a business field.

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