Mind Your Table Manners - Especially for Business

Place Setting Rules and Personal Habits

Business lunch
jenny downing/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Never be fooled by the apparent congeniality of a business meal. Whether a prospective employer is taking you to lunch or you're trying to win the big contract, your table manners have never been under greater scrutiny.

It's not that anyone cares if you have the skill to memorize the rules of the table. Emily Post is not quizzing you. But the fact is table manners were designed to keep us from offending one another with unappetizing behavior.

For example, you may think that it's better to pick food out of your front teeth with that handy matchbook cover than to have spinach stuck between your choppers. But your potential employer may not want to shake your hand after it's been digging in the recesses of your mouth.

The rules of table etiquette can be very involved. But as already stated, you won't be sitting for an exam on the subject. This is a basic list of American rules for the table to keep you out of trouble and, hopefully, land that job or contract.​

Place Setting Rules

  • Your water glass is the one on your right.
  • The bread dish to the left is yours.
  • Put butter on your bread dish. Break off bite-size pieces of bread to butter and eat one at a time.
  • Use the utensils from the outside in.
  • If right-handed, hold the knife in that hand while cutting and the fork in your left. Put the knife down on your plate and switch the fork to your right hand to eat the piece that has been cut.
  • If you drop a utensil, leave it where it fell on the floor and ask the waiter to bring you a new one. Once you've used a utensil, do not place it down on the tablecloth. It should be put on your plate. This ensures that the table linens will stay clean.
  • When you finish eating, your knife and fork should be placed across your plate pointing to 11:00.

    Personal Habits

    • Don't talk with food in your mouth. It makes it difficult to understand what you're saying, and it's not pleasant to see your food being masticated. Further, you don't want to risk a torpedo flying out of your mouth onto your companion's plate.
    • Chew with your mouth closed. See above.
    • Don't order messy foods that are difficult to eat. You will feel self-conscious as you try to keep the greasy sandwich from dripping on your new silk tie or dress. Or think about the vision of yourself with barbecue sauce smeared across your cheeks after slobbering over a rack of ribs. Not a pretty sight, is it?
    • Don't burp. It's not cute and it's not a compliment in most parts of the world, no matter what your father told you. If a burp or hiccup escapes, just quietly say, "excuse me."
    • Keep your elbows off the table while eating. It can interfere with the person seated next to you. After the meal has been cleared, you may put your elbows on the table in order to lean forward to join in ​the conversation.
    • Head for the restrooms if you must remove something stuck between your teeth.
    • Don't gobble your food in a rush. Give your mouth some space to converse.
    • Never lift your soup bowl to drink the final drops. Tilt it away from you and scoop the final amount with the spoon pushing away from you. Don't try to get every last drop.
    • Don't lick your fingers, use a napkin.
    • Be on time.
    • Turn off your cell phone. Your full attention should be on your dining companion or you will give the dangerous impression that you think there is someone more important than him or her.
    • Don't drink alcohol. You want to be in full control of your faculties. Also, many employers frown upon it. If your companion insists that you have a drink, limit it to one.
    • Write a thank you note. It's always good manners to do that when someone takes you out. And in a business situation, it provides another opportunity to put your name in front of your prospect.
    • Don't order the most expensive item on the menu when you are being entertained.
    • At business cocktail receptions, hold your drink in your left hand to keep your right hand dry and available for handshakes. Hold food in your right hand with a napkin to keep your hand clean.
    • Before sitting at the table, wait for your host to sit first or for instructions to sit.
    • Don't smoke unless your companion smokes and/or gives you permission to do so.
    • Never reach across someone's plate to get an item. Always ask for it to be passed.