Business dining
Credit: Flickr/Founding Farmers

Learn to master proper protocol and etiquette around meals and you’ll be way ahead of your competitors

Conducting business centred around a meal provides a level of shared experience that opens up a dialogue unlike ordinary 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.

Your skills and industry experience are critical in business, but how you conduct yourself in a more casual and social setting such as a meal also says a lot about you as a person. Consider these 17 practical tips for modern dining success in our global business world.

1. 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. When making the RSVP, guests must also advise hosts about special dietary needs within 24 to 48 hours of receiving the invitation.

2. Payment arrangements: 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.

3. Dress code: The late management expert Peter Drucker advised, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Research the corporate dress code, country, dining companion and restaurant information. If unsure, ask about the expected attire.

4. Table additions: Smartphones, purses, wallets, keys and glasses stay off the table.

5. Number of 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.

6. 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 with fingers pressed together. If they’re busy, softly call their name or “server?”

7. Wine: Share with the sommelier wines preferred, entrées ordered and an idea of price 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.

8. Ordering etiquette: The host, especially women, must be crystal clear that they are hosting. Straightforward requests to the server, such as “Please bring my guest…” or “My guest will order first, please,” avoid confusion.

9. Napkin knowledge: The host will place their napkin in their lap first. When excusing yourself between courses, place the napkin on the chair seat, soiled side protectively rolled in. When returning, make sure the unsoiled side touches the lap. At meal’s end, leave the loosely folded napkin on the left of the plate setting. Avoid refolding.

10. 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.

11. 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.”

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. Silent service signals: When you’re 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 centre of the plate at the 4:20 clock position.  

15. 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 North America:
• Bartender: 15 to 20 percent of bar bill
• Server: 15 to 20 percent of bill; 25 percent for extraordinary service
• Sommelier: 15 percent of wine bill
• Valet: $2 to $5
• Coat check: $1 per coat

16. Guest's food improperly cooked: With group dining, if a guest sends undercooked food back, it’s their responsibility to insist that everyone else start without them.

17. Host’s food improperly cooked: 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 you. Enjoy the other properly prepared foods, and avoid the improperly prepared food.

Sharon Schweitzer is an international etiquette and modern manners expert and cross-cultural trainer who is founder of Access to Culture