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Mastering Business Dining Etiquette

By Julie King |

Have you ever felt awkward at a business dinner because you were uncertain about dining etiquette?

Linda Allan (, a certified management consultant in business etiquette, workplace conduct, codes of conduct and dress, explains that there are new standards to follow. Understanding them will help you feel more confident and in turn, improve your chances of making a good impression.

Here is what you need to know to master the art of business dining.

Host or guest?

The first thing to consider is whether you are the guest or host. Allan explains that the person who extends the invitation is the host and as such is responsible for the bill. "It is not up to the guest to pick up the bill even if the host does not immediately reach for it," notes Allan.

When inviting guests, Allan recommends that hosts ask about any special dietary needs or food preferences in advance.

If a guest is vegetarian it doesn't mean you need to choose a vegetarian restaurant, but you should select a restaurant with a nice selection of vegetarian dishes. Kosher meal requirements are particularly hard. In these situations Allan recommends asking the guest to recommend a Kosher restaurant.

As a host you are in charge of the pace and mood of meal.

An effective host will help guests feel comfortable about ordering by making a few suggestions. Allan recommends that you suggest 3 different entrees in different price ranges. For example, the host could say something like "Have you eaten here before? I particularly like the Chicken Provencal ..." This also lets the guest know that it is okay to order more expensive selections.

If you are a guest, even if the host encourages you to order the steak & lobster meal, don't order either the most expensive or the cheapest entrée on the menu, cautions Allan.

One final responsibility of the host is to ensure that everyone keeps pace, as you have a limited amount of time and need to keep the meal moving along.

If someone is eating slowly, Allan recommends signalling the wait staff that it is okay to clear the table and move on to the next course. As a courtesy to the slower eater the host could say something like "we are going to get the next course started, but please take your time with your meal". A well trained waiter will also know how to help, asking the guest if he or she is almost done while clearing the other dishes. This usually prompts the guest to finish.

New rules about alcohol

In business, alcohol at the business lunch is now out (unless it is a very special celebration or event) and is limited to 2 glasses at most with dinner. These limits are now being written into the code of conduct standards for many corporations.

Whether you are following a corporate code of conduct or not, as the host you must also never relinquish your duty to select and order / reorder drinks warns Allan.

You can make guidelines clear at the beginning of the meal. For example you might say that there will be red and white wine available with dinner and ask people which they prefer. Alternatively, you could ask "should we all start with 1 cocktail." In both cases you are establishing boundaries and ensuring that drink orders are in your control.

If at the end of the meal a guest suggests ordering specialty drinks like a bottle of dessert wine, a polite way to decline would be for the host to say something like "I think most of us are okay." or "I think we've had a delicious meal and anything else would be an abundance." In response most guests will support the host by nodding their heads, making it clear that the additional alcohol is not necessary.

Etiquette and multicultural business meals

Allan explains that the general etiquette is that we are in North America and as such we follow North American etiquette rules.

Unless you are going out with a client group that is culturally specific and want to show respect for their culture, it is expected that in a mixed cultural group individuals will follow their own preferences about consumption of alcohol or meal preferences.

Allan's advice on good table etiquette

  1. Until everyone arrives at your table, don't touch or eat anything. Instead make sure you've introduced yourself to everyone at your table before sitting down.
  2. Put your napkin in your lap when you sit down. If you leave the table for any reason place it on your chair while you are away. At the end of the meal, place the napkin to your left. Do not place it on your plate (or push your plate away from yourself for that matter). Also, do not fold the napkin either; a simple "magician-style" crumple will do.
  3. When sitting down to eat, there is an easy way to remember which bread plate and glass is yours: Just think BMW: Bread on your left, Meal in the middle and Water/Wine on your right.
  4. To manage your silverware, simply use your utensils in order from the outside in. Occasionally there will be a small spoon on top for coffee or tea. If you see a larger spoon or fork there, that will be for dessert.
  5. If water or wine is left on the table rather than served, always circulate the bottle counter clockwise. If there is a host, then it is the host's job to ensure that the bottle goes round and everyone's glass is full. The host's glass is the last to be filled.
  6. Bread is one of the trickiest foods to eat. It is never cut with a knife; break it in half over your bread plate (or main plate if a bread plate is not supplied) and then break off small bite sized pieces to butter and eat.
  7. When eating soup, spoon away from yourself to avoid splashing your outfit or napkin. It is best to avoid the hot centre by spooning your soup in a semi-circular direction away from yourself. Surprisingly it is okay to tip your bowl to get those last delicious drops. Be sure to tip the bowl away from yourself.
  8. Don't talk with your mouth full – or talk too much for that matter.
  9. Keep your cell phone and BlackBerry on vibrate – and don't be constantly glancing at it. It's rude to send text messages during a meal at any time!
  10. Keep your elbows off the table and mind your manners, which includes not drinking too much or overeating.
  11. If conversation stalls, ask someone a question. Food, travel, and entertainment are topics that anyone can engage in.

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