During my 30 years as a sales professional, manager and now CEO, I have attended thousands of business meetings and events that included a meal. Some have been very formal. Some have been in other countries. Some have been in groups and others one-on-one.
I still remember my first business event. As I approached the table, I remember seeing more silverware than I had in my drawer at home. Not to mention, the five glasses. It looked complicated. I didn’t know what was mine or my neighbors’. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to sit down. I waited for someone to grab a napkin and paid attention for my next cue. I can remember how I felt and often see that same expression on the faces of young people today.
I’ve learned that being the first to grab the napkin is not always right and learning the proper etiquette yourself pays off. Whether you’re just starting your career or have been at it for a while, here are some tips for your next outing:
- Use BMW to keep it all straight.
I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for which napkin to use or water glass to drink from at the table setting. Then, a woman I was dining with gave me this tip: BMW. It stands for Bread Meal Water and is a quick way to remember what is yours from left to right. Your bread plate is the farthest item on the left, your meal is in the middle and your water (and other beverages) is to the right. I am now comfortable grabbing my napkin first and know I am setting the proper example.
- Order like you’re picking up the tab.
Let the host order first and follow suit. The host usually sets the standard for the type of meals and appetizers appropriate for the setting. If the host politely defers to you first, it is best to choose a moderately priced-option. (Yes, like chicken). I almost always order chicken or a mid-priced beef option. Never order more than you typically would if you were picking up the tab. And if you’re a lobster or “market-priced” lover, refrain from indulging during business meals. I’d also recommend avoiding messy eating choices like spaghetti or French onion soup.
- Know your limits with alcoholic beverages.
Don’t order an alcoholic beverage, especially at lunch, unless the host does or it’s being offered as part of the event. If you do, order only what you would normally drink, know your limits and don’t overindulge. Plenty of business has been accomplished over a cocktail or two, but drinking too much can quickly screw up a business relationship and tarnish your professional image.
- Don’t start eating until everyone is ready.
It’s rude to dig in once you get your meal. It’s the fastest way to throw up a red flag that you’re not following proper mealtime etiquette. Wait patiently and continue the conversation until everyone at the table has received a meal. If you or someone at the table has a delayed meal, it’s appropriate to give others permission to begin. Then, start using the utensils from the outside in and finish with the piece of silverware at the top for dessert. Remember, this is an active experience so be mindful of what’s taking place around you. When sharing, pass items to your left so others can enjoy it.
- It’s time to pick up the tab.
In business, the rule of thumb is whoever initiated the lunch pays. So, if you called a meeting, you’re responsible for the tab. I have some personal exceptions, though. For example, I always pay when eating with someone from a nonprofit organization or a young professional because I feel it’s the right thing to do.
So next time you sit down for a formal meal, remember BMW and be confident in the image you’ll project. Don’t assume everyone knows the proper etiquette, so feel free to share it with others as well.
Do you have a tip to share? I’d like to hear it. Comment below or share it on our Facebook page.