I went to my first “official” business dinner on a recruiting trip my senior year of college. My lack of experience translated to lots of nerves, and I was thankful that I had already accepted the job and was attending as a courtesy rather than as part of the interview process.
As I attended more work dinners, made mistakes, and read up on the in’s and out’s of business etiquette, I learned to relax and enjoy the experience because I was prepared. My many faux pas - from ordering a messy burger that I had to eat with my hands, bringing a presentation to a dinner without page numbers, and sharing an opinion that did not come out the way I intended - along with a good dose of Emily Post - taught me how to be a better dinner guest.
I had the pleasure of hosting a business etiquette dinner for our group of summer interns a few weeks ago, and we had a great time enjoying delicious food and wine as well as talking about the basics of formal dining and the many gray areas; things like, what do you do with your cell phone during dinner? What if you get sick? How do you politely tell the server that your bottle of wine is a bad bottle? And, why are there so many forks?
First things first.
After toasting the interns, I told them first things first when it comes to dinner etiquette: focus on making everyone else comfortable.
What do I mean by making everyone else feel comfortable? When you think about any aspect of the event, from conversation topics to how expensive of a meal you order, your first goal is to make everyone you are with feel comfortable. For example, one question that came up during our dinner was what to do if you are feeling sick. In that situation, it depends, and the answer ties back to the people you are dining with. If you are ill to the point of needing medical care, take care of yourself regardless of who you are dining with that evening. Similarly, if you are sick with something contagious, let your dinner mates know as far in advance as possible that you will not be able to attend, lest you pass along your ailment. Otherwise, if you have a headache or do not feel well, but are not in medical danger, it depends on how well you know your dinner party. Let’s say you are taking some business clients out to dinner. If you tell them you have a headache or heartburn, they will feel terrible the entire evening that you inconvenienced yourself to come out and will focus on finishing as quickly as possible so you can get home - not the intent of your dinner. In this case, you use all the energy you can muster to entertain and engage them. Conversely, if you are with colleagues who you know well, you can certainly share that you are not feeling well and ask them to excuse any behavior that seems out of character.
The place setting.
A good starting point of dinner etiquette is learning the format of a different place settings, including formal, basic, and informal. These explain what all the utensils are used for, why there are so many forks and glasses in a formal place setting, and which bread plate belongs to each person (which is easy to mix up)! For example, I have had numerous instances where someone has accidentally used my water glass or bread plate. Knowing the correct place setting will give you confidence when you walk into a dinner that you are not going to make the same mistake! And, if you happen to forget, you can use your hands to remind you. Take your thumbs and first fingers and make a circle with each hand, extending your middle fingers straight. Your left hand will look like a lower case “b”, which stands for “bread” and your right hand will look like a lower case “d”, which stands for “drink”. Easy!
I mentioned earlier that I learned my lesson when I ordered a messy burger and fries at one dinner. Now, I study the menu in advance and pick out one or two things that I want to order that are easy to eat and moderately priced. That way, when I arrive at dinner, I can focus on talking to other people and spend less time studying the menu. This also helps ensure that I do not “out order” the host, either in terms of quantity of food or price of food. When gauging what to order, follow your host’s lead and order the same courses of food as well as spend a similar amount of money on your meal.
Dining faux pas.
As I prepared for the etiquette dinner, I learned of two new dining faux pas: first, never blow on your food to cool it off, instead, wait for it to cool on its own; and second, never salt your food before tasting it unless you want to offend the chef’s seasoning selection.
While not necessarily faux pas, there are other practices to avoid if you want to support the idea of making others feel comfortable. For example, if you are entertaining someone, ask them for recommendations on the kinds of food or restaurants they like before you make a restaurant selection. Years ago, I wanted to impress a couple people at dinner and chose a high-end steakhouse, not thinking about the fact that they were informal, barbeque-style people and would prefer something more casual. Had I taken this into account, we all would have been more comfortable at dinner and enjoyed our time more.
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