Dining Etiquette 101: Ten tips to surviving your next business meal

If you think people don’t care about your table manners, think again. Whether you’re dining with a potential employer, your boss, or colleagues, dining etiquette counts. How you conduct yourself before, during, and after a meal can reveal a lot about your professionalism and character.

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Brush up on your dining etiquette before your next business meal. (Photo: Idlewyld Inn & Spa, London, Ontario)

When it comes to business dining, there can be a lot to remember. Which glass is yours? What should you drink? Who picks up the tab?

It can get complicated, especially if you travel to countries with unfamiliar customs. But if you follow these ten basic business etiquette tips you’ll be well on your way to making the right impression at your next business dinner.

Do your homework
Before you arrive, do some homework. Who will be joining you? What business are they in, and what is the company culture?

Then look up the venue. Is it a fine dining restaurant, or a casual pub?

A little bit of background research can go a long way in helping you feel confident, and in making sure you are dressed appropriately for the occasion.  When in doubt, it is always better to be overdressed than too casual.

Arrive on time
By on time, we mean try to be a few minutes early. If your host has not yet arrived, wait in the lobby. If you will be paying the bill, this is a great time to let the wait staff know and to give them your credit card.

Shake hands
Greet everyone with a handshake and a smile, and introduce yourself to anyone you don’t already know. Repeating someone’s name in conversation will help you remember it!

Keep the table clear
Do not place your handbag, briefcase, sunglasses or phone on the table. Bags can be placed under your chair, or between your back and the back of your chair. Coats should be hung on a coat hook, or over your chair back. Don’t forget to turn off your cell phone!

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Don’t clutter the table with bags, sunglasses, or cell phones. (Photo: Idlewyld Inn & Spa, London, Ontario)

Napkin in your lap / Solids to your left / Liquids to your right
Place your napkin on your lap as soon as you are seated.

Then, familiarize yourself with the place setting. If it’s more complicated than the basic fork, knife and spoon remember – the general rule is that utensils are placed in the order of their use. So start on the outside and work your way in.

Your bread is to the left, while your water, wine and coffee cups are on your right.

When in doubt, watch your host!

Drink with discretion
In general, it’s best not to drink alcohol at a business meal. Club soda with lemon is always a good option.

If you do decide to drink, moderation is key. Limit yourself to a glass of wine or one beer, and pace yourself.

Elm Hurst - wine glass
If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to a glass of wine or one beer. (Photo: Elm Hurst Inn & Spa, Ingersoll, Ontario)

Be ready to order
The host usually orders first, and it’s a good idea to follow their lead. Don’t choose the most expensive item on the menu. And don’t ask your server to explain the menu or make substitutions – unless you have a food allergy. You don’t want to come across as difficult or indecisive.

Stay away from trouble
Try to avoid foods that can be messy or difficult to eat. These include finger foods, spaghetti, tacos or hamburgers, dishes with a lot of sauce, or lobster.

Don’t just dig in
Wait for everyone at the table to get their meal before you start eating. Then, take small bites, and don’t talk with your mouth full. Cut your salad into small pieces if needed, break bread / rolls and butter each piece individually, and try to finish at the same time as the rest of your party.

To pay, or not to pay
Usually, the host pays. And while it is always polite to offer to pick up the check, don’t argue or offer to pay the tip.

Thank your host
Don’t forget to thank your host at the end of the meal. You may also want to thank them again later, with an email or handwritten note.

We’ve hosted thousands of business dinners at the Elm Hurst Inn and Idlewyld Inn, and hope these tips take the stress out of your next formal meal.

Share your business dining etiquette tips in our comments!