Let’s Do Lunch
By Chelse Benham
“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” - Clarence
Thomas, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Business lunches are a daily staple of the restaurant industry. Breaking bread is
universally accepted as a means to forging new working relationships or
solidifying agreements between parties. However, as with all areas of business,
there are some hard and fast rules to know to successfully maneuver through the
dining experience. Perhaps, there is no area more scrutinized than the dining
table where etiquette minutiae are put to the test.
“We offer a proper dining etiquette workshop and workplace professionalism
workshop to students,” said Velinda Reyes, assistant director at The University of
Texas-Pan American’s Career Placement Services Office. “These workshops
give helpful tips to students to assist them as they start their first job.”
The Creative Group, a research marketing firm in Menlo Park, Calif., released its
2003 survey about dining etiquette called “Hey Waiter!” located at
www.creativegroup.com In that survey, 250 executives were asked what are the
biggest faux pas committed during business lunches. The research found being
impolite to the wait staff is the single biggest blunder a professional can make
during a lunch meeting. Showing up late ranked as the second worst mistake.
Not dressing appropriately and displaying poor table manners were also cited as
common problems that leave poor impressions.
"Displaying poor manners when interacting with the wait staff – or anyone –
during a business meeting will prompt prospective clients and business partners
to question whether they and their staff members will be treated the same," said
Tracey Turner, executive director of The Creative Group, in the posted survey.
"Showing up late is a similar sign of disrespect. The key to a successful lunch
meeting is making people feel comfortable. Behaving graciously throughout the
meal will go a long way toward forming a positive working relationship."
Turner offered the following tips for ensuring a successful business lunch:
• Choose the right location. Bypass the trendy new hot spot for a more
quiet and easy-to-find restaurant that you know provides excellent food
and service. Make sure a variety of menu options are offered so people
with dietary restrictions will be accommodated.
• Arrive early. Get to the restaurant before the people you're meeting. That
way you can select a comfortable table and be there to greet them.
• Avoid messy foods. Bypass potentially sloppy dishes such as ribs and
spaghetti. Avoid food that is eaten with your hands such as hamburgers or
• Keep it short. While you want to postpone talking shop until after you've
ordered, don't let the lunch go on too long, since your clients may have
limited time to meet.
• Give them your undivided attention. Avoid taking cell phone calls or
other distractions. As the host, it's your job to make sure the meeting is
productive and on topic.
According to www.dummies.com seating arrangements make a big difference
and can psychologically influence your overall meeting effectiveness. Whoever
wants to exert influence needs direct eye contact with the person she wants to
influence. Therefore, it is best to be sitting directly opposite that person to
maintain direct eye contact. This is considered the most strategically powerful
Many job offers or contracts have been lost because of bad table manners.
According to Barbara Pachter, president of Pachter & Associates and a business
etiquette expert, in her interview with the Harvard Business Review, there are
some things you should never do at the dinner table:
• Hold up the order because you can't decide. Decide quickly or at least by
the time everyone else is ready. Don't ask the waiter to explain everything
on the menu. You'll come across as indecisive and annoying.
• Take someone else's bread or drink out of another person's glass. In most
place settings, the bread plate is on your left and the water glass is on
your right. Remember this rule: "food" has four letters and so does the
word "left;" "drink" has five letters and so does the work "right."
• Tuck your napkin under your chin. Remember, you're not at a family
picnic! Your napkin goes on your lap when everyone has been seated.
Etiquette dictates that you wait for your host to do so first. When leaving
the table temporarily, put your napkin on your seat. When you're finished
eating, place the napkin to the left of your plate.
• Hold your fork as if it were a pitchfork. You'll look like you just came out of
a cave. Also, when you're speaking, keep your utensils down. Don't wave
your fork or knife in the air.
• Lick your fingers or utensils. Never use your hand to clear crumbs off the
• Drink too much alcohol. It's always better and safer to abstain. If you do
choose to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one glass.
• Fight over the check. The host is the person who did the inviting, and that
person pays the bill – regardless of gender. Be gracious. Do not fight
about the bill or offer to pay the tip. And it is always appropriate to send a
written thank you to your host within two days.
When selecting your meal Sue Fox, author of “Etiquette for Dummies,” suggests
it’s always wise not to order the most expensive item on the menu. If a client or
your employer is paying the meal, it’s best to order mid-priced items.
Fox furthermore cautions against dipping, dunking or wiping sauces with your
bread. Breaking one piece of bread at a time and buttering it and then eating it is
the extent that bread should be handled.
Jill Bremer, owner of Bremer Communications, a training company in
professional image development and presentation skills, provides more key
advice to table manners. At Web site www.bremercommunications.com it
advises if you must remove something from your mouth as you eat, take it out
the way it went in. In other words, if it entered your mouth on a fork, remove it
with your fork. If it was finger food, use your fingers to remove it. Hold your
napkin in front of your mouth to mask the removal, then place the item on the
side of your plate.
According to Fox, the list of blunders is long and many people make these
mistakes with regularity. She lists the following common mealtime errors and
• You drop a utensil onto the floor. Never lean over and pick up the
utensil. In any situation where servers are present, beckon a server and
explain what happened. The server will bring you a new one.
• You’re served a piece of food that is not cooked properly. This
situation can be especially dangerous with meat. Call the server over and
quietly explain the situation. The server will take away your food and bring
you a replacement.
• You find a foreign object in your food. Again, find your server and
discreetly explain the situation.
• You dislike the food being served or can not eat it. Simply say “No
thank you.” There is no need to be critical or add a commentary while
declining the food.
Because mealtime meetings mean discussing business, Fox says to be prepared
to talk through the meal. This can be a difficult task to accomplish when there is
food in your mouth or you’re about to take a bite. It is best to take small bites of
food. Be sure to completely finish chewing and swallow the bite of food before
speaking. It is offensive to see bits of food in the mouth or even worst spitting
food while speaking.
Aside from being rude or discourteous to wait staff, the following are some of the
worst dining mistakes that can be made at the dining table according to Fox:
1. Talking with food in your mouth and chewing with your mouth open.
2. Picking your teeth at the table.
3. Resting your elbows on the table.
4. Leaving your purse, keys, sunglasses or other objects on the table.
5. Having poor posture, slumping and appearing too relaxed at the table.
6. Using cell phones and pagers while dining.
7. Eating too fast or too slowly.
8. Pushing away the plate or bowl when finished. Helping to remove plates
or piling them up.
9. Playing with your hair or earrings, or touching your face and head.
10. Speaking, laughing or disagreeing too loudly.
11. Eating before the host has begun to eat.
12. Wiping the mouth rather than dabbing it with your napkin.
Pachter further explains that finishing the meal is equally important and you don’t
want to destroy the positive impression established up to that point because of
silly errors made at the end. At the conclusion of the meal, Pachter suggests
imagining your dinner plate as a clock and place your utensils in the 4:20
position. She reiterates that it is considered rude to push your plates away,
stacking them up or handing them to the server. Furthermore, place your loosely-
folded napkin on the table just as you stand to leave, not before.
Maneuvering through a meal doesn't have to be scary. Like all elements of
etiquette, it boils down to common sense. Knowing the guidelines for dining
etiquette gives you confidence so that you can relax and enjoy the meal and the
company. Ultimately, good table manners are an asset whenever you eat and
practicing them regardless of the situation ensures that they become habit and a
part of your eating style at all times.
“Don't reserve your best behavior for special occasions. You can't have two sets
of manners, two social codes – one for those you admire and want to impress,
another for those whom you consider unimportant. You must be the same to all
people. “ – Lillian Eichler Watson, author