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10 tips to master business dinner etiquette

25 May 2021

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10 tips to master business dinner etiquette

Manners maketh man.

William Horman 

So, you thought etiquette was just about arranging flowers and knowing which spoon to use for your soup? Well, think again.

Etiquette is all about how you behave in a polite society. It’s about using your manners to navigate social situations. When your grandmother shouted “elbows off the table!” or “chew with your mouse closed!” at you, that wasn’t her just nagging you about proper etiquette. She was teaching you life lessons that would set you up for success.

Yes, manners do matter in the professional world

We all just spent a year either in complete lockdown or in relative isolation from one another. As vaccine rollout continues to make strides worldwide, restrictions are starting to ease up again. That means that you’ll have to go back to being a physical, functional member of society once more. And that counts just as much in your personal life as it does in your professional life.

It’s one thing to take a call on Zoom in a nice shirt or blouse and sweatpants. It’s completely another to meet with, say, a recruiter, a colleague, or a client face-to-face. Now that business travel is picking up again and we can physically come together, professionals worldwide are realizing that the meetings that matter happen in person. 

All business meals, whether business lunches or business dinners are actually very strategic. They give you the opportunity to get to know someone in a non-business setting. Everyone at the table gets to evaluate each other’s personalities, characters, professionalism, and even their social awareness.

The unfortunate story of George

Colleagues meeting for business dinner

George had recently started a new job at Badass Company. He was so excited to have landed an awesome role as a Junior Consultant. It was even in his family newsletter. 

Things were going pretty well for George at the company. His boss had even recommended him to manage a big client account just a few months into his role. That, too, made it into the family newsletter. Especially because he got to go on his first-ever business trip to New York. 

George met Rachel, Alan, and Lee at Le Bernardin, a fancy restaurant in Midtown. They ordered some wine, shared a few laughs, and talked about business. George thought it had gone really well. He went back to Badass Company ready to be praised!

When he arrived at the office, he realized the client had dropped him. His boss was furious. “I sent you to build our professional relationship with the Awesome Clients, and this is what I hear about you?” yelled Mr. Bossman. George was confused. “What did I do?” he asked. “What didn’t you do? You arrived 30 minutes late for dinner. You ordered the lobster—the most expensive item on the menu! You talked with your mouth full and spat food particles at your business associates. And, to top it all off, you kept asking them how much they were earning!” 

Yeah, George (like everyone) should have listened to his grandmother. 

10 tips to rock business dinner etiquette

Table set for large dinner

Social skills are just that—skills. After a year of limited (or even no) social interaction, it’s natural that some might be nervous about face-to-face professional engagements. That’s why we compiled this list of 10 etiquette tips to help you leave a good impression and avoid any faux pas.

1. Show up on time

We really shouldn’t have to tell you this. Showing up on time is Etiquette 101. Don’t keep the person or people you’re meeting waiting, and certainly don’t show up as they’re halfway through their entree or appetizer. It’s the height of rudeness. Show them you respect them by valuing their time. And never underestimate the value of a firm handshake!

2. Be polite to the wait staff

Again, another obvious one. Treat all restaurant staff with respect. Say “please” and “thank you”, as you would to anyone. Don’t complain about the service, it comes across as negative and could offend your host if you’re overly critical.

3. Don’t take calls during the meal

In fact, your cell phone shouldn’t be anywhere visible. Keep it off the table, leave it in your bag or pocket, and put it on silent. You don’t want the people you’re dining with to think you wish you were somewhere else, do you? Show your business partner, client or colleague that it’s important for you to be there with them. 

4. Dress for the occasion

A good rule of thumb is to go for a “business casual” look for these dinners. There’s no need to come fully formal like to a business meeting, but maybe leave the college sweatshirt at home. Make sure your clothes are clean and nicely ironed.

5. Remember there are things you just don’t do at the table

Don’t blow your nose at the table. Especially not into the napkin. Don’t pick your teeth. Don’t double-dip into a common dish, like a sauce or a salad. Chew with your mouth closed, and definitely don’t talk with your mouth full.

6. Drink in moderation

There’s no rule against having fun, just don’t have too much fun. Keep your wits about you. Pace yourself and drink slowly—even if your host or the others on the table aren’t. A good rule to follow is to drink a glass of water per glass of wine.

7. Always serve others before yourself

If you’re pouring yourself some water, always offer it to others first. Pour their water glass first and then serve yourself. The same holds true for any other food or drinks. You should also always ask if anyone wants anything when you order for yourself.

8. Practice proper table manners

Always take small bites of your food rather than large ones. Don’t be the first to sit at the dinner table, and let the host order first. Be sure to keep your silverware in the right order, and use it all for what it’s meant for. Don’t use your salad fork for meat, for example, and hold your knife in your right hand, and your fork in your left hand. Follow the host’s lead over when to start your next course.

9. Do not ask for a doggy bag

As a general rule of thumb, this will help you avoid embarrassment. You don’t want it to look like you only came to dinner for the free food, do you? Just leave what you couldn’t finish. If you really liked the food, come back with a friend.

10. Reach for the cheque

If you’re the one who did the inviting, then you’re the one doing the paying. If you’ve been invited out, then it’s up to your host to pay. Make the move to pay by reaching for your purse or wallet at the end of the meal, but ultimately let your host pay.

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paper plane