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Mind Over Manners

What you need to know to make a great impression at your next business meal

Do your palms sweat when you think about hosting a business meal? Do you shrink in terror at the idea of holding the right fork? Do you know what the proper seating arrangements are? With so many rules to keep straight, we went to Dana May Casperson, business etiquette expert and author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career (Amacom), for practical tips to help you clear your worries clean off the table.

Before you even get to the restaurant, advises Casperson, have a few topics of conversation ready. An interesting tidbit about yourself can be a great opener, for example. "Plan some questions you can ask, because people like to talk about themselves," she says. Because it's improper to talk business until after the entrée dishes are cleared, make sure you're ready to discuss current events, good movies, business books and the like before and during the meal.

The right outfit is essential to any business lunch, dinner or tea. For daytime meals, typical businesswear is appropriate (unless your daily attire is super casual, in which case you should step it up). In the evening, you should dress a bit more formally, though this can vary depending on the restaurant you choose. Casperson also recommends wearing an eye-catching tie or lapel pin to help spark conversation. "Wear something interesting up near your face," she suggests. "People will remember you."

Generally, seat your most important guest to your right. And if you've invited your guests, you're the host, adds Casperson. Make it clear upfront that you'll be paying. A quick statement before you sit down can avoid awkwardness at the end of the meal. Simply say, "You'll be my company's guest today." You can even arrange to pay the tab in advance or at least ask the wait staff to bring you the check.

Avoid ordering alcoholic drinks, because some companies frown on mixing business with alcohol. (If you are in the wine business, however, it would be appropriate.) After the entrée is cleared, it's time to start talking business. Now's the time to take out papers and other documents--but keep them out of sight until then. Offer your guests coffee and dessert (it's OK to discuss business while enjoying these).

"Remember," says Casperson, "what people see across the table, how they see you handling your knife and fork, is how they see you handling business."

ASK JEEVES
  • What do I do if my fork or napkin falls onto the floor? If your fork falls, use your foot to move it under the table and motion to the waiter to bring you another fork. If your napkin falls, you may pick it up unless you have to disappear from sight to reach it. In that case, ask for another one.
  • Where should I keep my cell phone? Keep it in your purse or briefcase--with the ringer turned off. If you are expecting an absolutely urgent call, be sure to make your guests aware of it at the beginning of the meal. Then, when your phone rings, excuse yourself from the table and keep your conversation brief.
  • Who orders first? Your guest generally orders first.
  • What should I do if the check is put in front of my guest? Ask for the check, or reach for the check first. Make a comment to the effect that "You're my company's guest today."
  • What if I need to blow my nose? If you have a bit of a sniffle, you may dab your nose with your napkin. But if you have to blow it, excuse yourself and go to the restroom.

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This article was originally published in the May 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Mind Over Manners.

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