Dos and Don'ts of the Business Meal
College life is not known for nurturing manners (though providing the Sizzurp for your roommate’s birthday could be considered polite). Unfortunately, once you arrive in the business world, your job will often depend on the way you present yourself. One of the most tricky work situations to navigate is also one of the most common: the business meal. Generally, you’ll either be invited as a guest or as a potential hire, or you’ll tag along with your boss/co-workers to meet clients. But whether you’re the wooer or the woo-ee (or even if it’s just you and the boss), the rules of engagement are pretty much the same:
Miss (or Mister) Congeniality
In essence, the key to etiquette is not making people uncomfortable. That means not embarrassing the host by dressing inappropriately, shouting at the table, or being rude to the server. But it also means steering clear of controversial topics in conversation (unless of course your job involves an element of rabble-rousing) and acting graciously. Look nice, don’t be uptight, but don’t get too familiar (boyfriend/girlfriend problems and drinking stories are probably not going to impress). Let the host be the one to determine when the conversation turns to business.
Don’t Get Wasted
This is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how often it goes wrong, especially when people don’t respect their own tolerance. Some companies have policies against drinking in a business setting, while others don’t. Some have policies against going to Hawaii Tropic Zone. A good rule of thumb is never order a drink first. This ensures that you’re never the only one drinking (a no-no).
Be early, always. If you are the first to arrive, wait for the other party to arrive before sitting down. (This is not an invitation to get aggressive at the bar).
Navigating the Menu
Surf and turf may be delicious, but if it’s the most expensive thing on the menu you might want to think twice. That doesn’t mean you have to order “just an appetizer” (that would also be a bit rude), but just be reasonable. If you can, politely ask the server to come back to you and then suss out what others are ordering. No one ever faulted the “I’ll have…the same, please” technique (or maybe they did…). Also, don’t order the messiest thing on the menu. Trust me, flinging spaghetti sauce around the table gets you nowhere.
Can I Bring My Boyfriend/Girfriend?
Probably best not to unless instructed otherwise. In which case, you may be dealing with swingers, so be on your toes.
Dealing with the Bill
Finally, the most painful moment of any meal: the arrival of the bill. For business meals, the rules are pretty easy. If you are invited, you should not be expected to pay, and it might be considered inappropriate if you offer. Instead, you should always repay the host with a hand-written thank-you note. If you’re just out with other co-workers bonding, offer to split the bill—if they’re much older than you they might pick it up, but it’s still best to ask.
After the Meeting It’s the After-Meeting
Going out with a boss or potential client can catapult the night into uncharted waters of business/ pleasure awkwardness, and it is perfectly reasonable to gracefully decline. If the person has been going on and on about how much they want to go out you might suck it up. If it’s your boss urging you to go out, you should probably go out—it’ll be worth it in the end. (For more tips on work-related socializing, check out this survival guide on attending work events.)
If you are brave and choose to host your own business meal, here are some tips: Clean up, serve simple elegant foods (fruit and gourmet cheese, for example), and continue to follow the above rules. If you set the reservation, choose an appropriate restaurant (find out of there are any religious dietary needs or allergy concerns, etc.)