Are You Using the Wrong Fork? A Business Primer on Table Manners and Etiquette

Client lunches, dinners and holiday parties are trying enough – but you can really embarrass yourself with poor table manners and etiquette.

This is more important than you think. Do you enjoy watching someone talk and eat at the same time? Would you want to be on the receiving end of a hard-sell pitch over dinner with someone who chews with his mouth open?

What Goes Where?

Elegant place setting

What Goes Where?

We’re assuming that you’re not eating at a coffee shop/diner, where they require you to keep your one fork and one knife for each course. These tips are for the restaurants where you sit down to a lineup of knives and forks of varying shapes and sizes surrounding your plate – not to mention, is that a wine or water glass?

We often get called in by major organizations to coach executives on their table manners, as well as what they say over dinner.

Clients clearly feel there is a lot of room for improvement, especially for their younger staffers who have grown up in a much more informal environment then their more senior executives.

Table Manners

Here are tips that will help you to perfect your skills as a lunch or dinner partner:

  • Most restaurants line up the forks, knives and spoons in the order they should be used. When in doubt, pick up the utensil furthest from the plate.
  • While most Americans switch utensils to their dominant hand (right or left) after cutting food, it is perfectly acceptable to use the European style. That is, you don’t have to switch hands, but can pop the bite-sized piece of food into your mouth, with the fork’s tines facing down. Never eat food from a knife.
  • Place used utensils on the plate, not the table.
Richard Geer & Julia Roberts

Richard Geer & Julia Roberts

  • Your mother probably scolded you when you picked up food with your fingers. But it is acceptable to pick up some foods: artichokes, corn on the cob, fruit such as chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert…and escargot. Who can forget the memorable dinner scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts launched a snail across the dining room because she didn’t know how to use the snail tong? When in doubt about which utensil, follow the lead of your host.
  • Keep your arms off the table. Avoid big gestures with your hands, or your water glass may end up in your client’s lap.
  • For men, do not remove your jacket unless your client does first. Offer to help a woman off with her coat at the coat check and pull her chair out for her at the table. While these may be old-fashioned touches, they will be much appreciated.
  • Be polite to the servers. If you treat them rudely, it may anger a client who waited tables in college. Besides, your client might think that you treat your staff, or his, in the same disrespectful way.
  • At the end of the meal, fold your napkin loosely and leave it on the table to the left of your plate.
  • Never drink too much. Just because the client, or your firm, is picking up the tab, don’t order the most expensive dish or bottle of wine on the menu.  He may think you’re just as reckless when it comes to his budget.

What to Say

When you take a client out to eat, or they invite you to join them for a meal, it’s a social occasion but almost always with an unspoken business purpose. You want to show appreciation for their business (in the hopes of getting more), build a better relationship or get feedback in an unpressured setting.

These tips will add to your success:

  •  Learn how to make small talk. Keep the focus on your client and not you. Ask questions appropriate for the occasion. For example, if you’re celebrating the holidays, ask what fun activities she’s planning.  Stay away from religion and politics, which can lead to heated discussions.
  •  Don’t make a sales pitch. That is a no-no and will make your client squirm. He will know that’s the real reason behind your invitation to dine.
  • Take your cues from your client. Does he want to keep the conversation on topics like the last movies you’ve both seen or the state of the economy? Let him introduce business matters into the conversation.
  • If the talk turns to business, be prepared with the key messages you want to communicate (social presentation training can help you with this). It is acceptable towards the end of the meal to say how much you enjoy working with the client and to possibly mention your next meeting, or project. But keep it short
  • If you’re the host, let the maître d’ know in advance to present you with the check.
  • Let your client decide when it’s time to leave. Check for verbal and body cues. Don’t prolong the meal by rambling on and on like I once did.
    This occurred when I was working in Trinidad for a week that happened to include my birthday. The client invited me to dinner to celebrate and when we got to the restaurant all the senior executives and their wives were at the table to surprise me. Dinner was elegant and lovely but seemed to go on for a very long time. I realized that the gracious Trinidadians were waiting for me, their guest, to bring the dinner to a close!
  • If you’re the guest, be sure to write a thank you note.  A handwritten note is always a pleasure to receive and an elegant way to say “thank you for a lovely evening.”

Entertaining a client can help cement the relationship.The occasion can also quickly turn into a disaster if you get drunk, push hard for new business, or don’t use good manners. Don’t let that person be you.

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