Meal Etiquette Matters In Business

By Eddy Wang
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Never pass the bread to the left. Never reach over the guy next to you to get the butter. And, when you’re at a business dinner, don’t announce loudly that you need to go to the bathroom. People don’t want to know the details.

In an era when jeans at the office are common and meetings at Starbucks are practically a rite of passage, it would not seem that details of fine etiquette, such as which fork to use for salad, matter anymore.

But more than 25 people turned out recently at an iconic place of business in Pittsburgh, the 142-year-old Duquesne Club, for a three-hour crash course in the fine art of dining politely, under the glow of chandeliers and the attentive service of well-trained staff.

The Pittsburgh Social Exchange, a networking organization that also hosts golf outings and cocktail parties, brought in Demetria Pappas, the co-founder of etiquette education company Mother, May I, to teach ambitious businessmen and women how to behave at the dinner table while they dug into a three-course meal.

Pappas estimates more than 65 percent of business is conducted over a meal, although perhaps not always as elegant a meal as the roasted stuffed chicken and almond macaroons served for the learning luncheon.

By gently poking fun at real-time faux pas, such as cutting salad all at once as opposed to one bite as a time, Pappas was able to create a convivial atmosphere among the erring participants while also inspiring them to scrutinize their every move, making it well worth the $95 that some paid for the event.

(This reporter was put on the hot seat, when, as the “host” of a table, I forgot to ask the waiters to refill the bread basket.)

For those who couldn’t make the lunch, here are seven of Pappas’ most important tips:

-When there are two forks at your seating place, the fork on the outer edge is for salad, while the one on the inside is for the entree.

-The correct way to pass bread is to one’s right but not before first extending the bread to the person on one’s left as a gesture of courtesy. The person who sits directly in front of the bread initiates the passing. (Ditto with butter.)

-Meeting clients can be awkward. Introduce people with first and last name. Come up with three things to talk about, and be the first to say hello.

-If you have an urge to go to the restroom, excuse yourself with a simple “Excuse me.” People don’t need to know where you’re going. If you need to make a phone call (and it’s really bad manners to make a call during a business meal), let people know beforehand if you’re expecting the call and thank them once you come back.

-Sometimes it may be hard to decide how you should acknowledge an acquaintance that is not part of your party. Pappas discourages hosts from directly walking over to the acquaintance and wasting the time set aside for their clients.

“It’s not right to leave the company you’re with to see other people,” she said. “And those other people might not want you in their space.”

A more respectful thing to do is nod your head in the acquaintance’s direction or send him or her a drink that will go on your tab.

-At a bigger event, sometimes it may be difficult to leave a conversation. A good strategy is a concise “excuse me, it was nice meeting you,” followed by a handshake. Walk away backwards so whoever you were talking to can see your face and see that you are genuine.

Ethan Nicholas, president of the Pittsburgh Social Exchange, offered a trick he uses to gauge how conversations are going. If you’re conversing with someone whose shoes are pointed toward you, that person is engaged. If his shoes are pointed away from your body, he has decided he wants to leave.

-For hosts who want to make sure they are the ones paying, tell the waiter beforehand. That way you can walk your client to his car without the waiter bringing the check over. Whoever set up the meal is the person who pays.

And for guests, don’t forget to send a personal thank-you letter after the meal. That seemingly small handwritten gesture is worth a thousand words.

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