Pachter's Pointers:
Business Etiquette Tips & Career Suggestions


The Dining Error Continuum: What Type of Dining Errors Are You Making?

Do you find it stressful when you are required to attend a business meeting that includes dining? Are you concerned that your manners will cause you embarrassment in front of your boss, customer or potential employer?

You are not alone.

A participant became upset during a class I teach on dining etiquette, believing that he had made a faux pas. I had corrected the placement of his knife – the blade of his knife had been facing away from his plate instead of towards it. Before I could calm him down, another diner said, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s just a misdemeanor!”

I thought, “He’s right.” There is a continuum of severity with dining errors, from serious mistakes to minor ones. And when people understand that not every error has major consequences, it can help people relax a little when dining out for business.

Fatal flaw______________________________________Minor gaffe
(Major consequences)...................................................(Minor consequences)

A fatal flaw is a serious breach of dining etiquette that is easily noticed by others and can cause you to lose business, a relationship or a job offer. These mistakes include getting drunk before or during the meal, holding your fork like a pitchfork, or talking with your mouth full. One man I heard about lost a $30-million contract because he licked his knife during a meal with a potential client.

A minor gaffe is a less serious breach of dining etiquette that may or may not be noticed by others. If noticed, it is unlikely that it will be held against you unless you commit a number of minor gaffes during the meal. These gaffes include using your neighbor’s bread plate, putting on lipstick at the table, or eating soup by dipping your spoon into the bowl and moving it towards you instead of away from you.

Of course, what seems a minor gaffe to one person may be a fatal flaw to another. There are stories of a famous businessman – some say Henry Ford, others claim J.C. Penney – who decided not to hire someone because he salted his food before tasting it. Ford/Penney, so the story goes, thought this indicated that the man made assumptions without knowing all the facts.

You want to come across as a polished professional when you are dining for business. Learning as much as you can about dining etiquette makes you less likely to make fatal flaws, and more likely to navigate a business meal with success.

Additional information on dining can be found in my previous blogs: Place Settings: The Secret Language of Dining and How To Treat The Wait Staff With Respect

Pachter’s seminars and coaching services on business etiquette provide additional information about business dining. Contact Joyce at for more information.

Note: The Dining Error Continuum™ is a trademarked name.


  1. Anonymous5/24/2012

    From A Reader:
    Barbara, great article; thanks for sharing!

  2. Anonymous5/24/2012

    From A Reader:
    Thank you for reiterating dining etiquette! I was surprised to read the reference to Henry Ford. According to my years of study it was JCPenney that related to the "salt story." Interesting. I also liked the reminder of how one faux pas might be minor to one and major to others! That's so true and a great reminder of something to always be aware of. Again, thank you*

  3. Anonymous5/24/2012

    From A Reader:
    I totally agree with the idea of a continuum. Common sense would dictate where on the spectrum certain faux pas might fall, and herein lies the conundrum. Common sense is not as common as its name suggests. Nonetheless, the article makes an excellent point and keeping things in perspective is usually very helpful. Good manners, whether in the dining room or the board room, is about consideration for others.

  4. Anonymous7/09/2012

    From A Reader:
    Holding a fork like a pitchfork or licking a knife are indeed fatal flaws. Offending a potential employer by putting salt on your food before tasting it is much more subtle faux-pas. Having been born and raised in the U.S. and having lived in France for several years, I still am confused at times about which hand to hold the fork in (I can switch discreetly). I learn by observing, so after reading about the continuum I should practice at an actual lunch or dinner meeting.