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While some of the rules have changed, it is still important for making a favorable impression and showing courtesy to your dining companions. Our etiquette experts have been hard at work creating a contemporary, comprehensive dining etiquette guide with new rules for a new millennium and the time-tested techniques still needed today.
Eating with someone you don’t know well in a professional environment is a tricky situation. On the one hand, you’re trying to get to know the person better, but on the other hand, you’re also worried about what your eating habits say about you.
A few years ago, at a restaurant in New York City, I used a knife and fork to eat a steak. The restaurant was a highly regarded fashion restaurant and this was their take on classic American food. The chef and the owner, both European, believed using a knife and fork required more skill than using chopsticks, and that the use of a knife and fork indicated a higher level of sophistication. The chef would come out to the dining area to scold anyone who dared to eat his steak with chopsticks!
It was totally bizarre to see, but it goes to show that we may have changed culturally but we are still quite wary of others’ table manners. In some ways, we are all in the same boat and trying to figure out what is okay to do when we have no clue whether a person is a well-mannered gourmand or a clueless slob.
First, let’s look at the basics. When you are invited out to a business dinner, you should always call to say “yes” or “thank you” for the invitation. Your host should identify the restaurant ahead of time and make arrangements.
When you arrive, you should come in early to greet your host and check that you are headed to the same table. If your host meets you inside, compliment him on his attire and thank him again for thinking of you. No matter what type of restaurant you are going to, you should always arrive a few minutes late. Ten minutes plus one minute per year of the age of your dinner companion is properly late for any occasion. For a thirty-year-old, it’s ten minutes; for a fifty-year-old, it’s fifteen minutes.
When you arrive, your date should stand up right away. If your date has been seated for a while, he should stand up when he sees you come in. When you are sitting down, your date should sit back down.
When you are seated, tell the maître d’ that you have a reservation. The host, who is usually the person who has made the reservation, tells the maitre d’, “A reservation for (your name and name of your company).”
If someone you know is seated at a nearby table, make sure you acknowledge their presence. If they are with someone you do not know, have your date introduce you to them. The best time to do this is when you are leaving, as your date is on his way out and you are on yours.
If you are with someone from the same company, or an interviewee or a prospective business partner, be sure to mention this to your date as soon as you are seated.
During dinner, you should conduct yourself with reasonable decorum. Remember that you will be eating in close quarters with someone with whom you want to manage a successful business relationship, and that you never want to embarrass yourself or your host.
For business professionals, it is important to remember that you need to be prepared to interact with any type of individual or personality you might encounter. Â If you are going to a higher-end establishment, where formality is more important, you may want to borrow a few tips. The more casual you are, the more comfortable your tablemate might feel. Make sure you are dressed appropriately for the restaurant, even if it is casual.
If you are dressed casually, make sure not to be too casual. Avoid wrinkled clothing and shoes that are worn out. This does not mean you should dress like you are attending a black-tie affair but you should not look “leftover” from the last party you were at either. You can also take a cue from the table decor. The more formal the restaurant, the more formal you can be. If the restaurant is really informal, you should dress a bit more formally than you would normally.
If you are dining with people who have very different dining styles from you, it may be appropriate to suggest you all order one of the same dishes. This shows solidarity with the group, and the host controls what food is ordered.
Try not to overindulge except at a fancy dessert place where you can really go overboard. If something is really delicious at a restaurant, you might want to order it again on a return visit. You will also be remembered by the waiter if you are courteous and generous.
Even the maître d’ deserves credit for a well-run dining room. You can acknowledge this by asking for the check, even if your date has not finished the meal, to make sure the restaurant patrons have no lingering delays in getting their bills paid.
If you are feeling indulgent, go ahead and have a drink, but make sure it is not too strong. Drinking too much alcohol will only confuse your dining companion, who might not know if your socially overt act was just a less-than-tasteful joke or if you really are an intoxicated boor. Also realize that it is no longer considered tasteful to drink to excess while in another culture. You should drink by nationality of a meal so that you will be not be drinking with your host’s countries’ norms.
The host of the meal should always offer to pay for the meal from the very beginning, and the guest should always offer to “go dutch.” When the bill comes you should offer to go dutch and append “or maybe you could pay the whole thing,” depending on what the power level of other person. This shows that you want to be socially equal, but you have a deep understanding of the relationship and use of power dynamics.
In the professional world, the person with the deepest pockets is expected to pick up the check. If the situation is reversed, the person with the deepest passion for the project should pay. For example, if someone is having a dinner to celebrate his new promotion, and he has an investor over, the host should pick up the check, as the promotion is a high moment for him
If you do not want to pay the entire tab, you can offer to pay for the meal for two, or a portion of the meal. You can also offer an alternative, such as a gift or a favor. Some people even offer to do extra work instead of paying.
Never let your credit card identity get compromised. Make sure your credit card and driver’s license are not out on the table where anyone can get their hands on them. Never let your date know you have left them out.
If you are going dutch, you can pretend to use your credit card but then put the card back in your pocket. Don’t spend extra time trying to pay the bill; people know how to read body language and will think you are going to stiff them. If you are paying with cash, for example in a strip club, you can let your tip hang out of your pocket or wallet a little bit without making it obvious to your date that you are spending the evening at the strip club. If you are with a group of people, offer to get the bar bill or the dessert bill.
The clue that you are up to no good is if your credit card has a name and address that you forgot to fill in. You must fill out the back of your credit card. You can also put a clear piece of tape over the face of your credit card or use only a corporate card.
In the professional world, any gift given in the first few months is not to be reciprocated. This is to make sure that the person’s interest is not influenced by the gift. Gifts given about six months after you have met can be reciprocated but should be considered as gifts to an organization and not to an individual.
Business gifts should not be extravagant. The gift should be appropriate for the setting and should show a certain level of thoughtfulness. It is important to ensure that the gift is not a bribe or a substitute for dealing with business. A good rule of thumb is that the gift should cost no more than the price of one lunch or dinner.
When you travel to other places, you should not be obvious about it. However, there are times that people can tell when you have been somewhere. When traveling, not only do you need to dress as if you are in the local area, but you should also speak the local language. For example, if you are in France, it is appropriate to speak French. However, if you are in Minnesota, you should not be speaking French, but you might want to start saying “merci beaucoup.”
Visiting other countries is exciting, but make sure you do not offend anyone. The visit should be designed to enhance everyone’s knowledge of the business, not simply for pleasure. While the business may be a priority, the friendship with the associates should not be killed.
A potential business trip is an excellent opportunity to learn another culture and language, and to see the world. When traveling to another country, you don’t want to be rude or disrespectful to the culture and people. However, you also don’t want to bore your dinner partner with every detail of the trip. Keeping it simple is easiest. Look for opportunities to share meals together in the host country. Information about the visit can be broken up into little pieces and spread over time.
When traveling to another country, it is important to be culturally appropriate. If you are traveling for pleasure, but fashion is a cornerstone of the business, you might want to not just blend in but also to build on the local trends. Make sure you are dressed appropriately for the occasion. If the style is casual, you can be less formal. Wear clothes that fit your style, taste, and status but don’t give the impression that you took a page out of the “wrong culture.”
On business trips, you should rent a car. The local car rental service will know where to take you and may also know what is best. You should consult a guidebook to find out about the best restaurants and things to do in the area. However, it is best to use the local experts to find out about the best food.
There are many types of shops throughout the world. You may want to have your driver take you to a local department store. This will show a genuine interest in the culture and the products of the culture, and you will be able to shop the local way. If your driver is not English-speaking, you should instruct him in the local language to make the experience comfortable for everyone.
There are times when you will be in a position to be a training partner or partner for the locals. A training partner or partner is someone that is learning a skill or just how to get his job done. In any business area, there is always a need for training or a need for assistance in a certain skill area or requirement. By offering your assistance, you are building a reputation as someone who wants to help. This will be beneficial not only to you but also to your employer.
If you are going to a country where the drinking culture is different, you must be careful. If you choose to drink alcohol, drink slowly. You don’t want to drink too much too quickly and make too many mistakes in front of the other person. You should give yourself time to adjust and start drinking about half the amount that the other person drinks.
Native guests will often drink first and then eat. By doing this, you are recognized as a guest of honor. Your host may say to you, “You are a guest of our family, so you don’t have to eat or drink too much.” This is a nice gesture, but it is important to eat a little bit to show your appreciation. If you drink with the local hosts, you will find that they will drink a lot. You should try to match their drink for drink. Make sure you drink as much as the guests because this is how you show your appreciation for the hospitality. You may have to go slow at first, but you want to catch up with the other guests. If you feel yourself getting too drunk, try to have your driver stay nearby. Even though you may not speak the same language, with gestures you can get him to sit you in a corner until you recover.
While staying at a hotel, you will probably meet other business travelers while you are at the bar or in the lobby. It is important that you only make acquaintances and do not make friends. You want to protect your home base. You want to be seen as collecting information, not people. For this reason, don’t have someone follow you around. If you want someone to know you, talk to them. If not, be friendly at the bank or airport and say that you will see them later. Don’t lead anyone to believe you will be leaving with them.
While on business trips, you can build on your good reputation. People want to help you if they like you. They will remember you if they like you and feel like they know you. Smile and make eye contact. Try to be relaxed and make sure you do not seem too eager. Be confident and positive, and don’t worry too much about what others think of you. Remember that whatever is going on is more important to you than it is to others.
International Dining Etiquette: Conclusion
Errors in international manners are easily made, but understanding the basic points of etiquette and observing those can help you avoid any embarrassing situations. While mistakes are not uncommon, your peers will be aware of your effort, not your errors, and will be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.