During my advertising agency days when I worked with Asian car companies, I had countless business meals with Asian men who had been schooled by experts in the art of American dining. Their training was evident; when faced with four forks at the first course of our meal, my companions were astute enough to know to take the second fork from the outside. (The rule, for dining idiots, is, when in doubt, use the utensil farthest from the plate, which in this case was the appetizer fork.) With every meal thereafter, I learned a little more about dining from them, and they learned a little more about server-side technology from me, until none of us needed each other anymore and a final “Check, please” was uttered.
Since then, I’ve gathered tips for business meals. I’m not perfect — in fact, I still don’t know why people use chopsticks for sushi when it seems like finger food — but I have learned a few things that can help keep meals moving smoothly. And I received a few e-mails last week suggesting that I write a column about table manners during business meals, so here goes.
Don’t dive for your food. I think the rule about not being the first to eat comes from the idea that you shouldn’t dis the Queen by eating the good stuff before her. Or something like that. Then, I think, this rule came to mean, Don’t look like you’re starving as if we were living in Depression-era times. Now, I think, it’s more about being interested in the people at — instead of the food that’s on — your table.
Don’t order soup. It splashes. It’s hard not to slurp. If your soup is hot and everyone else has a cold appetizer, they will have to wait while your soup cools. And in case your mom never told you this — when you tip the bowl to get the dregs of the soup, tip away from yourself, not toward. Also, spoon away from yourself, not toward, unless you want to drip-dry later.
Don’t sit facing a mirror. You will not be able to stop looking at yourself, which people might mistake for vanity or disinterest in the people around you. Both may be true, which would make things even worse. Don’t sit facing the sun. You will squint, which is never attractive. You will see your dining partner as a silhouette and you will miss facial expressions, which are crucial to reading moods.
Don’t cross your legs under the table. Sitting this way tilts your body a little bit. The tilt looks fine to those who can see your sheer stockings with a seam running up the back, but when your companions see no legs, just body, the tilt makes you look like you have either bad posture or no equilibrium.
In groups of more than five people, there is likely to be more than one conversation at a time. Sit near the person you want to talk to, but not next to her — it’s so much easier to talk across the table. That said, you must say a few words to those on either side of you. No matter how large the party, it is rude to talk only to the person on one side of you.
Drink. I’m not saying go wild, but if everyone else is drinking, unless you’re in a 12-step program, give in to peer pressure. It’s like wearing a suit when everyone else wears a suit. This goes for dessert also. I’m not saying you should initiate ordering the banana split flambe, because part of being a good executive is not being out of control, which means not being fat, which means not eating desserts. But if everyone else is getting one, don’t ruin the fun. How hard is it to take a bite in a show of camaraderie?
When in doubt, take your cue from those around you. For example, you probably don’t know how to use a finger bowl. I, in fact, do. But when my grandma trotted them out for my sweet-16 birthday party, my friends ate the floating carrot-fish out of the bowl. Are others ordering an appetizer? In what price range are their entrees? By the way, fingertips are dipped daintily into the finger bowl then patted dry with the napkin.
These tips may not land an account or close a deal, but I’ve found they are extras I bring to the table.