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Still clueless after all these years

It’s a special pleasure to write this column as it marks the sixth anniversary of Etiquette at Work in the Boston Globe.

The final issue pertaining to dining etiquette in the question submitted by C. P.’s Business Management class involves cell phones. Nothing can make a dining experience go south faster than a ringing cell phone as illustrated in the following scenario:

“Recently, I took a client to lunch at a really nice restaurant which I know has a ‘no cell phones’ policy. After we sat down to eat, his phone rang, and he answered it and proceeded to have a conversation. The maitre d’ came over and asked him to turn it off, and my client got a little testy. The whole situation ended up being a fiasco. What should I have done?”

Once you’re at the table and Tom answers his phone, you, his host, have a split-second decision to make: If you’re sure enough of yourself, you can get his attention and say quietly, “Tom, there really is a no cell phones policy. Please step outside to take your call. Thanks.” If you are uncomfortable saying something directly to Tom because, as a client, you don’t want to risk offending him, then say nothing and hope nobody complains or the maitre d’ ignores the offense. Or, you could excuse yourself from the table. You might dodge the testy exchange, but your client probably won’t be in the best mood if the maitre d' has visited the table during your absence. None of these solutions is ideal, as, basically, you’re dealing with damage control.

You do have a better alternative than simply hoping your guest doesn’t use his phone. As you enter the restaurant, take your phone out of your pocket and point out the no cell phones policy to your guest by saying, “Tom, I’m going to turn off my phone now. There’s a no cell phone policy here, and they’re sticklers for enforcing it.” Hopefully, Tom gets the hint and turns his phone off, too. But even if he doesn’t, you’ve given him fair warning about the consequences.

There are two pieces of advice pertaining to dining etiquette to be gleaned from this scenario. As a host, it’s your responsibility to take care of your guest. That includes informing him ahead of time of policies that could affect him, such as dress codes or cell phone use. And while I’m normally not a fan of blanket etiquette rules, silencing your cell phone in a restaurant is an exception. Put it on vibrate, and if you simply must take a call, step outside or into the lobby. But at the table, let your focus be on the person you are with. Voice mail is free and it works. This is a great time to use it.

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