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Table manners: asset or liability?

Last week’s question about table manners also asked the more general question: “What is the proper etiquette for business meals at restaurants?” “Proper etiquette” has purpose. It’s not simply rules for rules’ sake. In a nutshell, the purpose of dining etiquette is to make the act of eating as pleasant as possible.

Eating is really a gross activity. You have food on a plate. You cut it and/or try to balance it on a fork. Then you raise it to your mouth without letting it fall back onto the plate, the table, or you. Once you get the food in your mouth, you chew it up into a soft pulp which you then swallow. You do this thirty or forty times during a meal at the same time that you are trying to carry on a conversation with the other people at the table. Table manners limit the grossness of the act of eating and promote the social aspect of dining.

The most basic table manners—chew with your mouth closed, don’t talk with your mouth full—spare your tablemates the unpleasant sight of the first stage of digestion. Using utensils correctly ensures that food stays on the plate and is delivered to the mouth neatly, efficiently, and unobtrusively. If you have any doubt about your mastery of these basics, eat an entire meal in front of a mirror. What you see is what your dinner companions see. If you’re really not sure what to do, you can always wait and watch what other people are doing and then follow their lead.

As a guest at a business meal, you should be a pleasant dining companion and contribute intelligently to any business discussed, but your goal is to be invited back the next time. Your skill and confidence—or lack thereof—will be noticed. Take part in the general conversation while not dominating it. When there is no general conversation, make the effort to talk with the people seated next to and near you. Leave the impression in your host’s mind that you added materially to the meeting and that your dining manners are an asset, and you’ll make the best case for being included at the next event.

Finally, there are five key manners to be aware of at any business lunch or dinner:

• Don’t be late, not even 5 minutes late, and wait for your host to arrive before going to the table.
• Begin eating only after your host has asked you to or after the host starts eating.
• Don’t drink at all, or limit yourself to one alcoholic beverage throughout the event.
• It’s the host’s prerogative to initiate any business-related conversation.
• Thank your host twice: once at the end of the meal and then send a thank you note the next day.

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