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Social Skills

Table Etiquette for the 21st Century

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

Does the thought of a business lunch terrify you — even just a little bit? Do you have visions of making an etiquette faux pas at your biggest client’s dinner function? Does the well-set table look more like a minefield than a relationship-building arena?

Take a deep breath, relax and listen up. It may be a new world out there with vastly changed rules for doing business, but when it comes to table etiquette, old-fashioned manners and common sense still rule. For the other sticky questions, there is PJ McGuire, founder of Modet, a Chicago-based consulting company specializing in modern business etiquette and protocols, social interaction skills and executive coaching.

From her perspective, good etiquette can help create a positive impression on clients and colleagues while poor etiquette can harm your image, lead to embarrassing situations and even scupper a business deal. “Etiquette is part of your professional presence and can reflect how you want to be perceived,” she says. For those who need to brush up — and frankly, who doesn’t? — here are her top suggestions.

If You’re Hosting a Business Dinner

  • Arrive at the restaurant early to ensure your table is ready. Work out a seating arrangement in advance with an eye toward optimal conversation, for example, seating a chatty guest next to a shyer one. Also try for an even number of guests to avoid the possibility of one person being left out if intimate one-to-one conversations pop up.
  • Give your credit card to the host or waiter in advance and ask them to hold the bill until after the meal. “This says you are polished and professional,” says McGuire.
  • If  you are on a budget, one way to let your guests know the “limits of your hospitality,” as McGuire so tactfully puts it,  is by suggesting menu items.  If, for example, you recommend the chicken, a good guest will follow your lead and order in a similar price range.  But if you suggest the lobster or the Kobe beef, you are signaling that the sky is the limit.
  • Choose wines in advance — both a red and a white. This keeps things moving smoothly and eliminates the possibility that a guest will order that bottle of ‘98 Petrus.
  • Keep a half-dozen conversation starters in your back pocket. As the host, you need to make everyone at the table comfortable. (See “Big Ideas for Small Talk.“)

If You’re a Guest at a Business Dinner

  • Take your cues from the host.
  • Don’t order messy food. That means staying away from ribs, crab claws, spaghetti, even burgers and sandwiches. If you want pasta, order penne, fusilli or another type that is easy to eat.
  • If you need to use the bathroom, simply excuse yourself. No need to tell people where you are going. It is best to get up after a course is served, otherwise the servers will hold the food until everyone is seated and you will interrupt the flow of the meal.
  • If you leave the table, place your napkin on the seat of the chair, not the table.
  • Try to eat at the same pace as everyone at the table. A too-fast or too-slow eater can interfere with the rhythm of the meal.

Potentially Sticky Situations

  • An overindulged guest. If you are the host, quietly ask the server to cut them off.  “This puts it on the server,” says McGuire, “and takes the heat off of you while still ensuring that you remain in charge of the table.”
  • Spilled wine. Pick the glass up quickly then get the server’s attention. If you only spilled on yourself, go off to the bathroom to clean up as best you can. If you spilled on someone else, apologize and offer to pay for dry cleaning. “No one ever takes you up on it,” says McGuire, “but it is the right thing to do.”
  • Food allergies. If you are the host, it is appropriate to ask your guests in advance if there any foods they cannot eat and then choose the restaurant and menu appropriately. This also avoids the embarrassment of bringing a vegetarian to a steakhouse or an observant Jew to a shellfish emporium. If you are a guest, it is your responsibility to inform the host of your food limitations when you RSVP. If that is not possible, talk with the host as soon as you arrive so the restaurant can make other arrangements for you.

Common Questions Answered

  • When to start eating. If it is a cold dish, wait until everyone has been served. If it is a hot dish, it is OK to start eating when the people nearest to you have been served. The latter also holds true at longer banquet-style tables — if the person on either side of you has also been served, you can start eating.
  • What never to do. Never, ever blow your nose at the table. Enough said.
  • A common faux pas. Taking your neighbor’s bread plate. Remember, bread plates are on the left, glasses on the right.
  • And what about electronics? Turn off that phone. Never put it on the table. If you are waiting for an emergency call, explain upfront and apologize in advance to everyone at the table that you are expecting a call. When it comes, take the call away from the table, then turn your phone off when you return.
  • Can I check email? Not really, but for you email addicts, if you simply have to check, excuse yourself from the table and check it somewhere else in the restaurant. But only do this once — no getting up every 10 minutes.
  • When is it appropriate to start talking business? If it is a designated “working lunch” and everyone knows it, start immediately. But if it is simply a meal with business colleagues, the rule of thumb is to wait until after finishing the main course.
  • Are thank-you notes necessary? Absolutely! In today’s more informal climate, a handwritten note stands out and helps people remember you. You might want to send a quick email immediately after the event, then follow up with a handwritten note. This goes for both guest and host.

Categories: Business Development, Etiquette, Playtime
Originally published December 1, 2011
Last updated November 12, 2023
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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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