Here's what to know before sitting down to a business lunch

Published Nov. 1, 2016

You probably realize you shouldn't stare at your cellphone, eyes glazed over, during a business dinner, but there's more to it than that, of course. Practicing proper table etiquette and behaving with decorum can help you seal a deal or even earn you a favorable impression in your boss's eyes.

Sharon Schweitzer, a cross-cultural consultant, international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, has great tips for business lunches and dinners, beyond the obvious faux pas of talking with your mouth full and slurping your soup.

If you made the invitation, you're responsible

If you extended the invitation, you're considered the host, and that means you take care of the bill.

That includes casual invitations, like, "Hey, let's get together for dinner." When the check comes, say, "I'll take care of this," or even better immediately reach for the check without drawing attention to the fact that you are.

But what if you were invited and you still want to pick up the check? That's an admirable gesture, but it's also fraught with peril. Saying, "I'll get this," is like saying, "I don't want the gift you wish to give me."

So don't risk offending your host. And don't try, however inadvertently, to steal her thunder.

Side note: If company policies don't allow you to accept meals from vendors, suppliers or advertisers, mention that when the invitation is made. Just say, "I would love to go out to lunch, but per my company's guidelines, we'll need to split the check."

As the host, actively set the pace

Say you're the boss and you're taking your team out to lunch. If you want lunch to flow fairly quickly so you can get back to the office within an hour, tell the restaurant host or hostess that you want to order quickly. Say, "We have a group for lunch and we have a time commitment to meet so we won't be ordering appetizers or dessert, and we need to be out of here in about 45 minutes, please."

That way your servers will know your expectations and will work to meet them and you'll avoid that awkward moment when Bob orders dessert, and no one else does.

If you're a guest, watch your host for clues

Want to be a great guest? Follow your host's lead. Place your napkin in your lap after the host; the host does so first to signal the start of the meal.

When excusing yourself between courses, place your napkin on the chair seat, soiled side down. At the end of the meal, place your loosely folded napkin on the left of your plate after the host does. Don't refold it.

Stay with the program. If the host doesn't order dessert, don't order dessert. If the host doesn't order coffee after the meal, don't order coffee.

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Send the right signals

The way you place your menu and your silverware provides unspoken cues to servers and to the people with whom you're dining.

Close your menu to indicate you're ready to order. An open menu gives the impression you haven't made up your mind. (If you need to refer to it when you're ordering, open it again.)

Once a piece of silverware is used, it should never touch the table again. Rest forks, knives and spoons on the side of your plate. Unused silverware stays on the table.

If you're pausing between bites, place your fork with tines up near the top of your plate. To signal the server that you're finished, place your fork and knife across the center of the plate at the 5 o'clock position.

As a guest, be savvy about ordering

I have a friend who, when I invite him to dinner, always orders the most expensive thing on the menu. He thinks being asked to dinner is the perfect time to treat himself. It's rude.

So how can you be gracious and sensitive to potential price ranges without having to ask (and making the host feel like he should say, even if he doesn't really mean it, "Please order anything you like.")?

Start by asking the person who invited you for suggestions on the menu. Ask her to make suggestions or for her favorite dish. Listen carefully, because she will provide a top and bottom price range based on the entrees she recommends. Then select one of the dishes they recommend, or an item similarly priced.

And if all else fails, follow the 30 to 40th percentile rule: Don't order the least expensive item on the menu, but also don't go for the most expensive; try to fall in the 30th to 40th percentile. That way you show you're appreciative without taking advantage.

As a host, make it easy for your guests to be savvy

If you're the host, you can make the process easy for your guess. If you want your guests to order anything they like, say, "The lobster is great." (But make sure you plan to order the lobster or something similar; if a guest orders the lobster and then you just get a salad, that could be awkward.)

To drink or not to drink

If the host orders alcohol and you don't wish to drink, simply order the beverage of your preference without an explanation. "I'll have an iced tea with lemon, please" and continue to browse the menu. You are under no obligation to consume alcohol at lunch or any other time of the day. Polite dining companions will neither comment nor ask questions.

If you follow the host's lead and order a drink, keep it to one or two and sip slowly.

Tip appropriately

The host is also responsible for tipping the bartender, the sommelier, the valet, the coat check, etc. Remember, you extended the invitation. You're responsible.

Often a guest will offer to take care of the tip. Depending on the nature of your professional relationship, that might be fine, but when in doubt, the host shells out.

A meal is a universal experience

Think of your business meals as, first and foremost, a way to come together and share a common experience.

Do that and although you may not close the deal, you'll almost never go wrong where manners and etiquette are concerned.