Business Dining Etiquette

“I could not believe it. Several peers and I were out to lunch with a client. During the meal, one [co-worker] was chewing and talking with a mouth full of food. I was so embarrassed!” says Lila Widemann, vice president and trust officer for private client services with a financial services company in Tacoma, Washington.

“About 50% of all business transactions are finalized over a meal,” says Donna Paige Riley, owner of Paige’s Etiquette Seminars Etc. in Atlanta and author of What is Etiquette, Anyway? A Book about Manners for Children (But Grownups Can Read It Too! (LeTay Publishing; $12.95). “Your table manners really say a lot about your image as a whole.”

Whether you are the guest or host, handling business over a meal does not have to be a stomach-turning experience. Paige Riley offers these basic business dining tips for anyone who aspires to land his or her dream job, sign a multimillion-dollar contract, or select that sharp new employee:

Sit at the head of the table if you are the host or the person conducting the interview. “Guests should be seated after the host sits or asks the guests to be seated,” says Paige Riley. Also, reserve a table where there will be few interruptions.

When using utensils, start from the outside and work your way in. Notice the varied sizes of utensils, such as the salad fork, which is smaller than the dinner fork. Food dishes such as bread plates are always to your left. “If you are not having coffee or tea, turn your coffee or teacup over on the saucer,” says Paige Riley.

Bypass alcoholic beverages and order foods that are easy to work with. Never order messy foods like crabs. “Also, be cautious of pastas like spaghetti and other foods that can be challenging to eat,” she says. If eating non-finger foods, don’t use your fingers. And never lick your fingers, pick your teeth, or floss at the table.

Rest your utensils vertically on the sides of your plate, with the fork on the left and the knife on the right. When you have completed your meal, rest your fork and knife together in the center of your plate. And when resting your arms, your elbows shouldn’t be on the table.

Always pass the salt and pepper together—whether or not both are requested. Pass food counterclockwise, and if sharing a sauce, use a spoon to scoop some onto your plate. Never double dip! And no matter how much fun you’re having, don’t talk with your mouth full.

Hail your server by making eye contact and discreetly raising your hand. “It is also a good idea to know a server’s name, to respectfully acknowledge them that way,” Paige Riley says. “Never tap your water glass with a spoon to get the server’s attention. And thank the waiter or waitress each time you are served.”

The host generally pays the bill and tip. “It could, however, be good etiquette for a guest to offer to pay or to leave the tip,” she says.