I received my first dining etiquette lesson at the age of three—to keep my elbows off the table. “When I was a child, and I had an elbow on the table, your grandfather would take my arm and slam my elbow down next to my plate to teach me a lesson,” my mother told me. “It worked.”
Scary story for a 3-year-old—hearing it alone did the trick. She also taught me to chew with my mouth closed, pass to the right, and keep my fingers out of my mouth.
Mom’s lessons are still with me, but now that I’m an adult in the professional world, I’m a regular participant in business lunches, dinners, and even breakfasts. The concern is no longer how my family feels about my etiquette, it’s how colleagues interpret my table manners—behavior that can make or break the image of any businessperson.
“There are a lot of people who don’t understand what to do at the table,” says Shelley Davis Mielock, chief image expert at Mieshel Image Consulting in Lansing, Michigan. “It is incredibly important to know proper host etiquette and proper guest etiquette.”
Lets start with host etiquette. ‘Hosting’ a meal is when you invite someone out to a restaurant (or, less commonly, to your home). At a restaurant, it is important to keep a few things in mind.
1. Extend the invitation over the phone. “Do it over the phone, not just by email—and when you do, explain the reason you want to get together,” suggests Rachel Wagner, a certified corporate etiquette consultant, trainer and speaker in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “They need to know what’s in it for them.”
2. Choose the restaurant. Don’t put this responsibility on your guests, Wagner says. Choose a place you’ve been to and is within close driving or walking distance your guests. Ask if they have dietary restrictions—you don’t want to bring a vegetarian to a steakhouse.
3. Get there early. “At least 15 minutes early; and make sure you have a good table that will be conducive to conversation,” she says. “Then, determine where you will seat your guest. They should always have the best seat at the table—looking out the window, or if there aren’t any windows—looking into the restaurant, never at the wall. Also, your guest should always sit to your right—which is considered the seat of honor.”
4. Give price restrictions. These come by way of recommendations. Instead of telling them you can’t afford anything more than $30, suggest specific items within your acceptable price range, Wagner advises. Let them order first.
5. Get down to business. “Stick with small talk until the order is placed,” she suggests. “Wait until you’re waiting for your meal to talk business.”
6. Eat first. Once the food arrives, the host should always be the first one to take a bite. Guests follow suit, Wagner says. After the guest has sampled his/her entrée, ask how everything tastes, she adds.
Now comes the hard part: money. How and when should you pay?
“A world class host will pay prior to the meal,” Wagner says. “Have them run your credit card when you get there early, then excuse yourself toward the end of your meal to sign the check. Make sure to take care of all coat charges and valet charges—these are all part of your host duty.”
Ok, now on to guest etiquette. Most of these tips go hand-in-hand with those for a host, with a few caveats.
1. Get there on time. “If you arrive late, you are just telling your host that your time is more valuable than theirs,” says Davis Mielock.
2. Go easy on the sauce. “Don’t order alcohol unless your host offers,” she says.
3. Follow the leader. Wait for the host to put the napkin in his/her lap before you do. Wait for them to take a bite before you do, she says.
4. Don’t complain. Davis Mielock says it is always important to compliment the establishment, service and food—even you aren’t having a five-star experience. Thank the host.
5. Take it easy. Eat a small snack before going to a business meal, she recommends. Remember: these interactions are not about the food. They are about developing a relationship with the person across the table. “As the guest, don’t eat at a quicker pace than the host and never ask for a doggie bag,” Davis Mielock says.
6. Turn off your technology. Cell phones sitting on tables send a bad sign.
Ever sat down for a business meal only to find 64 pieces of silverware in front of you? If you are like me, your heart starts racing as you try to guess which fork to pick up first.
“Remember to follow the outside-in rule,” Davis Mielock says. “Your forks sit on your left and your knives and spoons sit on your right. The first utensil you should use is the fork on your far left, then work your way in.”
What about the fork and spoon above of the plate? “Those are meant for dessert,” she says. “Leave them alone until your plate has been cleared.”
Davis Mielock’s additional tips:
• Don’t turn glasses upside down
• Never push your plate away
• Don’t stack plates
• Always ask the person on your left if they’d like something before passing it to your right
• Never reach, ask for something to be passed to you
• Stick with one alcoholic drink, and drink it slowly