The Art of the Business Meal: 15 Modern Dining Manners

03/13/2017 12:09 pm ET
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Food is our common ground, a universal experience. – James Beard

When entertaining business associates, clients, dignitaries, dining at international Michelin starred restaurants, or attending formal events, dining protocol is nuanced. For instance, how do you order the perfect bottle of wine? What are the appropriate conversational topics for business colleagues or social companions?

Consider these 15 practical tips for modern dining success in our global business world:

  1. Soup: Remember the proverb, “Just like ships that sail out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.”
  2. Dress based on culture: Remember Peter Drucker’s advice “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Research the corporate, country, dining companion and restaurant culture. If you’re unsure, ask about the expected attire.
  3. Special dietary needs: The person extending the invitation is the host and responsible for bill payment. When extending invitations, inquire about special dietary needs like food allergies or kosher, halal, gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free. This aids in booking a restaurant with proper accommodations for your guests. Guests should also advise hosts about special dietary needs with the RSVP.
  4. Table additions: Smart phones, purses, wallets, keys, and glasses stay off the table.
  5. Hosts pre-arrange payment: As a sophisticated host, arrive early to provide a credit card, or call the restaurant in advance. Women in male-dominated cultures must do so, especially when extending the invitation. Guests don’t split the bill.
  6. Napkin knowledge: The host will place their napkin in their lap first. When excusing yourself between courses, the napkin is placed on the chair seat soiled side down. At meal’s end, place the loosely folded napkin on the left of the plate setting. Avoid refolding.
  7. Wine: Share with the sommelier or sommeliere wines you like, entrées ordered, and an idea of price range by identifying  two or three wines within the preferred range. Using these signals the sommelier will stay within your ideal range, allowing you to order with finesse without stating in front of others how much you want to spend.
  8. Nonverbal cues: A closed menu indicates you’re ready to order. If you or your counterpart continue to  browse  the menu after deciding, the server has the impression you aren’t ready. If you require assistance, catch the eye of the server or slightly raise your hand up. If they’re busy, softly call their name or “server?”
  9. How many courses? Order the same number of courses as the host, or your companion. Unsure? Ask if they are ordering one or two courses to avoid awkwardness and pace yourself with others.
  10. Conversation Starters: Avoid starting a business conversation before the main course concludes. Topics vary by custom. In Western cultures, topics include industry news, travel, sports, museum exhibits, books, films, and weather.  Avoid topics that could lead to complaints about colleagues and work.
  11. Please take my guests’ order first: The host, especially women, must be crystal clear that they are hosting. Clear requests to the server such as 'Please bring my guest...' or 'My guest will order first please’ help to avoid confusion.
  12. Pace: Observe and pause every few bites, especially when you're the host. When hosting, you want your guests to feel relaxed, not rushed, when dining. Watch the time discreetly to finish when promised.
  13. Silent service signals: When you are resting between bites, place your fork, with tines up, near the top of your plate. To signal you’re finished to the server, place your fork and knife across the center of the plate at the 5 o’clock position.  
  14. Silverware savvy: Once silverware is used, including handles, it doesn’t touch the table again. Rest forks, knives, and spoons on the side of your plate. Any unused silverware stays on the table
  15. Tipping: The tip reflect the total bills before coupons, discounts, or gift certificates. Tipping before or after tax is discretionary. Suggestions for good service in the U.S.:
  • Bartender: 15-20 percent of bar bill, valet: $2.00- $5.00
  • Coat check: $1.00 per coat
  • Server: 15-20 percent of bill; 25 percent extraordinary service,
  • Sommelier: 15 percent of wine bill

2 Bonus Tips:

  1. Guest’s food cooked improperly: With group dining, if a guest sends undercooked food, it's the guest’s responsibility to insist that everyone else start without them.
  2. Host’s food cooked improperly: As a host, if the food isn’t properly prepared, I‘m silent rather than inconveniencing my guests, or worse, causing awkwardness by encouraging them to begin before the host. I enjoy the other properly prepared foods.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business,  Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.

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