Business Lunch Etiquette 101

Sharing food is a way of building alliances in every culture. Here are 11 tips to help you make a good impression.
Senior Scientist, Global Workplace Analytics (formerly Telework Research Network)
October 21, 2011

Sharing food has long been a way of building alliances in every culture. In modern society, business lunches can be very important to your success. You might invite a customer for lunch to seal a deal. Or a competitor might invite you out to discuss buying your company.

How you eat and how you act during lunch will make a huge impression on people. Table manners are not just stuffy, old fashioned rules your grandmother insisted on. They exist because they make social situations more comfortable for everyone. Even if you run a fast-growing dot com, or have built a business and reputation by rejecting social norms, you still need to understand that a business lunch is a meeting, not a meal.

Here are 11 tips to help you make a good impression at your next business lunch and keep you from embarrassment.

1. Dress appropriately

Wearing a business suit when everyone is dressed casually can be as uncomfortable as showing up in jeans and a t-shirt when everyone else is dressed formally.

If you’re the host, offer your guests a subtle tip about appropriate attire. The restaurant is real casual, and I’m coming from home, so feel free to wear something comfortable. But that’s not permission to wear torn jeans, smelly sneakers and a dirty t-shirt. Remember, this is a meeting, not a party with the gang.

If you’re the guest and didn’t receive a hint from your host, ask. Demonstrating that you’re comfortable enough with your host, and self-assured enough, to handle a little detail like this communicates that you’re a take-charge kind of person. I usually work in khakis and a golf shirt, will that be appropriate?, for example, can solve the problem.

2. Arrive early

Whether you invite someone to lunch or they invite you, plan to be standing inside the entrance about five minutes before the scheduled time. Take into account that you may not know where you’re going and parking may be a problem.

Whether a host or guest, if you’re going to be late for any reason call as soon as you realize you will be delayed.  That way the others won’t worry that they had the wrong day or time, or the wrong place.

3. Go now

If you have to go to the bathroom, and to be sure you don’t have to go later, go before you arrive at the restaurant.

Your own comfort isn’t the only advantage; I once overheard, standing in a stall, a discussion of how the people I was meeting with were planning to handle our upcoming negotiation. Needless to say, it was a little awkward.

4. Make a good first impression

When you first meet, firmly (but not painfully) shake hands and look people in the eye. A limp handshake and a mumbled greeting with downcast eyes gives the impression you’re either inept or uncomfortable, neither of which will help you.

Some people scoff at such details, but humans, like other animals, look for subtle signs that offer insight into the characters of the people we meet.

5. Sit down together

Make small talk about the restaurant, the weather, sports or something else you know the people you are with are interested in—but don't begin by discussing the business at hand.

If you’re the host, invite people to sit down and do so yourself. If you’re the guest, wait until your host sits or invites you to do so. Keep in mind that sitting side-by-side makes talking difficult, so try to sit across from whomever you want to interact with most.

6. Put your phone away

Texting or answering calls is insulting to the people you’re with. You may think it makes you look like a big shot that has to deal with all kinds of important issues, but it only makes you look inept and incapable of managing your life or business for the short time you’re at lunch.

7. Order something easy to eat

A big splotch of spaghetti sauce on your lapel isn’t easy to overlook, and it’s embarrassing for both you and others. If you’re wrestling with king crab legs or trying to keep a club sandwich together you’ll have trouble paying attention to the business at hand.

If you’re a guest, don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu, even if your host does. I once took all my employees to lunch, and one of them ordered lobster while everyone else had a sandwich. That one act left a lasting (and accurate, it turned out) impression about that person’s attitude and personality.

8. Don't start eating until everyone is served

A business lunch (or dinner) isn’t a competition for food. When you sit down, feel free to sip your water, but don’t grab a roll or condiment and start wolfing it down.

Assuming everyone’s meal arrives at the same time, wait until the host starts to eat. If that’s you, take a bite or two so others know it’s okay to start eating, even if you’re ready to launch into your pitch.

If the meals don’t all come at the same time, wait until the host is served or invites you to begin.

8. Elbows off the table

While you’re eating, sit up straight, and don’t lean on the table. You’re trying to look like a businessperson. Don’t shovel in your food with your elbows on the table like a six-year-old. Again, the purpose of your lunch meeting is tomeet, not eat.

9. Cut your food

Stabbing a steak and gnawing off bites around the edges might impress someone who lives in a cave, but not modern people. I watched a smart, educated person do this recently, and saw everyone’s impression instantly change with that one simple mistake.

Cutting your food and taking small bites helps keep you from putting something in your mouth you don’t want to swallow. If you nevertheless have a piece of gristle or something else you don’t want to eat in your mouth, take it out the same way it went in (utensil or fingers) and put it on the edge of your plate (not in your napkin).

10. Don't chew with your mouth open

Kids think it’s funny, because it’s gross to show off a mouthful of chewed food. If you chew with your mouth open you’re grossing people out over and over. Grown-ups (which includes most business people) aren’t amused by it.

11. Don't talk with your mouth full

See No. 10, plus it makes you hard to understand.

A lunch is a business social event, and your job is to handle it with grace. Mom was right about a lot of things, and behaving properly at lunch is one of them.

Senior Scientist, Global Workplace Analytics (formerly Telework Research Network)