3 etiquette tips for a Business Dinner

For both new and experienced professionals, the thought of going to a business lunch or dinner can strike fear. Take the same partners or managers you see in a conference room, put them around a dining table, and things suddenly become awkward.

Whether you’re faced with the prospect of dining with colleagues at a work-related conference or event, or preparing for a formal business dinner with potential or existing clients and colleagues, here are some tips that will help you to sail through a business lunch or dinner with grace.

What to talk about

Novices often struggle with the very concept of the business plus lunch (or dinner). Is it supposed to be business, or lunch? It’s supposed to be both, but the focus should be on making the most of your time with your host to meet specific career goals (for example, discussing workplace performance, learning about new job opportunities, or developing a mentor-mentee relationship). Ultimately, it’s an investment in further developing a relationship outside of the typical office setting.

As a general rule, business meals consist of small talk before getting down to professional matters and other business. If you’re naturally shy or uncomfortable making small talk, determine 3-4 potential topics ahead of time (e.g. upcoming travel, interesting news articles about professional trends, or conferences in your field) so you can contribute to the conversation. If you’ve never met the host before, do some research about them and see where they’ve worked, gone to school, and lived. This can spur conversation and shows that you did your homework.

After the small talk, which can range in time depending on how well you know your host, you’ll usually shift into discussing business. It’s always best to take your cues from the host. If they address a business-related question to you after 5, 10, or 20 minutes, they’re signaling the transition to business topics.

What to order

For many professionals, the question of what to order can be a tricky one. Again, follow your host. If they order appetizers or a first course, you should too. If they say they have a meeting immediately after lunch and will need to leave at a certain time, go straight to the main course. Remember, this isn’t about the food, it’s about getting quality time and conversation with your host so try accommodate their schedule and time constraints.

In terms of the dishes that are “safe” to order, there are no rules. With so many people having food allergies these days, your dining companion is not likely to make assumptions about your behavior or personality if you order the goat cheese salad instead of the steak. That said, don’t turn the conversation into a chance to talk about why you’re avoiding gluten or how great you feel since going vegan. If you do have specific food preferences, peruse the restaurant menu ahead of time to identify options you can order.

Avoid messy foods that could cause an embarrassing splatter or spill – pasta with red sauce, burgers or any foods that require eating with your hands, etc. The eating part shouldn’t distract you from the conversation at hand or necessitate a trip to the dry cleaners. At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to spend time with someone who will help you reach your career goals.

Watch your mouth

Above all, you absolutely shouldn’t mention in a public place anything that could be considered confidential. Look around your table and consider all of the people who may know names and facts pertaining to your firm or clients. In the worst case, this information could sabotage the firm’s relationship with a client. Even in the best case, those present can think that you lack discretion and good judgment, traits you don’t want to be seen lacking in the your profession.

Do you have any other tips for successfully handling the business lunch or dinner? Or a personal story of what NOT to do when dining with coworkers or clients? Let us know in the comments !