In a recent post, I told the story of a young man who lost a sales position with a very prestigious company because he did not know the proper way to eat a foil-wrapped baked potato. The proper way, by the way, is to cut into the potato with the foil on, open the potato, add condiments (butter, sour cream, etc.) and eat the potato while it is still in the foil, leaving the foil and potato skin on your plate when you are finished. The young man I described removed the potato from the foil, balled up the foil and placed it on the table.
As I mentioned in that post, I think that the sales manager who decided not to hire him was a bit impulsive. If this young man was an otherwise outstanding candidate, I’m sure that once he was told how to properly eat a foil-wrapped baked potato, he would not have repeated the mistake. Unfortunately, he lost the job because of this gaffe.
If you know basic table manners, you won’t have to worry about faux pas like this. And, you’ll be comfortable at the dinner table because you’ll be able to focus on the conversation, not on worrying about the rules of dining etiquette.
Business meals provide you with a great opportunity to make a positive personal impact. They also can be disasters waiting to happen. If you know and follow the simple rules of dining etiquette, you’ll be fine.
Here is some advice on making the best of the opportunity that business meals afford you. First, use your common sense. These rules aren’t all that complicated, and your common sense will tell you what to do.
Learn basic table manners and etiquette. Place settings can be a bit of a challenge, especially when there are a lot of people crammed around a small, round table. If you remember that your water glass is to your right, and your bread and butter plate is to your left, you’ll be off to a good start. If one of your fellow diners uses your bread plate, don’t comment. Use your main plate for your bread. In this way, you won’t inconvenience the person to your right, nor embarrass the person to your left.
Your salad fork is the little one on the far left, and your soup spoon is the big one on the far right. If you remember this, and work from the outside in, you’ll be unlikely to make any cutlery mistakes. Sharon Hill has come up with a clever way of remembering where things are on a table: BMW. Moving from left to right, you will find your bread plate (B), then your meal plate (M) and finally your water (or anything wet) (W).
There are a few simple courtesies that can help you get through any business meal. Place your napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down. Sit up straight. Keep your elbows off the table. You can rest your wrists on the table.
Cocktails and beer are before dinner. Wine accompanies dinner. Drink alcohol in moderation.
If you choose not to drink wine with your meal, do not turn over your wine glass. Simply say “no thanks” when the waiter is pouring for the table.
Wait until everyone at the table has been served before you begin to eat. If one person’s food is delayed and he or she suggests that you should begin eating, feel free to do so. Order things that are easy to eat.
Order with care. It’s almost impossible to eat pasta that needs to be twirled and look sophisticated doing it. Order foods that are easy to eat. Lobster, snails, shrimp with the tails on, are good things to avoid when you are business dining.
Break – don’t cut – your bread or roll. That’s why dining is sometimes called “breaking bread.” Pass the salt and pepper shaker as a pair – even if someone asks for only one. Spoon soup away from you. This will help you avoid spilling it on you. Sip, don’t slurp soup.
When you are finished eating, place your knife and fork on your plate at 4 o’clock. Fold your napkin and place it to the left of your plate. This will indicate to the server that you are finished with your meal.
These are simple rules that should help you get through business meals with grace and aplomb. One final thing to remember: business meals are not about the food. This is so important that I have devoted an entire rule to it. Read on.
Today, I’d like to tell you an embarrassing business dining story from my youth…
As I mentioned above, order with care. About 30 years ago, I had just accepted a job as the Training Manager for a division of a large company. Our division was located in New Haven, CT, a city with a large Italian population and a lot of great Italian restaurants.
About a month after I began my job, the VP of Human Resources for the corporation was hosting a two-day meeting of all of the senior HR people in the company at our location. Since the meeting was at our location, junior people like me were invited to a dinner held the evening of the first day of the meeting. I was looking forward to this dinner. It was an opportunity for me to impress some senior people in other divisions.
One of my junior colleagues was a local woman. She was excited about the choice of the restaurant. Of course, it was an Italian restaurant. She had been there on special occasions with her husband. She was very fond of a dish called zuppa de pesce, a medley of seafood served over spaghetti. A couple of days before the meeting she told me about this dish and that it was available for two only and asked if I would be willing to share it with her. I said, “Sure.”
We arrived at the restaurant, and sure enough, zuppa de pesce was on the menu. My friend and I ordered it. What a disaster!
First, the waiters brought lobster bibs for both of us. No one else had ordered this dish, so we were the only ones wearing our bibs. When the food arrived, everyone had a dish of pasta, or some grilled fish, or a steak. The zuppa de pesce was served on a silver tray so big that the waiters had to bring a side table for it. There was enough fish and pasta to feed the entire table. My friend dug in and really enjoyed her dinner. I felt like I was a character in The Godfather.
I spent my time trying to carry on an intelligent conversation with people I wanted to impress while I was wearing a lobster bib and working hard to make sure that I didn’t spill any red sauce, or “gravy” as the waiter called it, on my suit.
I didn’t lose any points that night – but I didn’t make any either. It was pretty apparent to most people that I was there for the food, not for the conversation.
I learned a lesson that day. Always order something that is easy to eat and won’t call attention to you as you eat it. I try to be a good friend, and in social situations, I will often share an entrée that is available for two only – but I never do that in a business situation. Because business dinners are not about the food: they’re about the conversation.
The common sense career success coach point here is simple. Business meals are not about the food. They’re about the conversation. That means you need to follow the career advice in Tweet 75 in Success Tweets. “Learn and use simple table manners. Good manners make you look polished and poised.” You want to look polished and poised during business meals. If you know the rules, you’ll be able to spend time focusing on the conversation – not worrying about which fork to use.