Conducting business centered around a meal provides a level of shared experience that opens up a dialogue unlike ordinary business meetings in the office. Dining in a restaurant or home allows an escape from the familiar work atmosphere and adds an element of social connectivity. Business meals can be an enjoyable way to improve your business standing or professional persona, and can provide an upper hand with the correct planning and execution.
Consider these 15 practical tips for modern dining success in our global business world:
• Soup: Do you know the correct way to enjoy your soup? Remember the proverb, “Just like ships that sail out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.”
• Dress based on culture: Remember Peter Drucker’s advice “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Research the corporate dress code, country, dining companion and restaurant information. If unsure, ask about the expected attire.
• Special dietary needs: When extending invitations, it’s the host’s responsibility to 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 guests. Guests must also advise hosts about special dietary needs within 24-48 hours of receiving the invitation when making the RSVP.
• Table additions: Smartphones, purses, wallets, keys, and glasses stay off the table.
• 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 especially must do so when extending the invitation. Guests don’t split the bill unless agreed in advance.
• 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 protectively rolled in. When returning, the unsoiled side touches the lap. At meal’s end, place the loosely folded napkin on the left of the plate setting. Avoid refolding.
• Wine: Share with the sommelier wines preferred, 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 discussing budget in front of guests.
• Nonverbal cues: A closed menu indicates ‘ready to order.’ If you or your counterparts continue to browse the menu after deciding, the server has the impression the group isn’t ready. If you require assistance, catch the eye of the server or slightly raise your hand up fingers pressed together. If they’re busy, softly call their name or “server?”
• 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 keep pace with the host and guests.
• Conversation starters: Avoid starting a business conversation before the main course concludes. Conversational topics vary by country. In Western cultures, topics include industry news, travel, sports, museum exhibits, books, films, and weather. Avoid complaints about colleagues and work.
• 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’ avoid confusion.
• Pace: Observe and pause every few bites, especially when you’re the host. When hosting, the goal is for guests to feel relaxed, not rushed, when dining. Watch the time discreetly to finish when promised.
• 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 four twenty o’clock position.
• 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
• Tipping: The tip reflects the total bill 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
• Guest’s food cooked improperly: With group dining, if a guest sends under-cooked food back, it’s the guest’s responsibility to insist that everyone else start without them.
• Host’s food cooked improperly: As a host, if the food isn’t properly prepared, stay silent rather than inconveniencing the guests, or worse, causing awkwardness by encouraging them to begin before the host. Enjoy the other properly prepared foods and avoid the improperly prepared food.
Your skills and industry experience are certainly critical in business, but how you conduct yourself in a more causal and social setting such as a meal also says a lot about you as a person. Learn to master proper protocol and etiquette around the business meal and you’ll be way ahead of your competitors.
Sharon Schweitzer is an international business etiquette expert.