Pachter's Pointers:
Business Etiquette Tips & Career Suggestions


Be A Guest: Dinner In Three Acts

A young man was about to attend his first business dinner with potential clients. Although his boss would be the host, the young man was nervous about handling himself professionally during the meal.

I suggested that he think of the meal as a three-act play. The restaurant is the stage and he is an actor, playing the role of the guest.

But, I told him, preparation for the show starts before he leaves home. It is important that he dress appropriately. The dinner is a business activity, and he needs to project a professional image. He should know the route to the restaurant, anticipate traffic, and arrive a few minutes early. He needs to greet and shake hands with the other people in his group. Although he is not the official host, it is still his job to help others have a good time.

Here are the three acts that can help anyone feel more comfortable when dining for business:

First Act
During the First Act, you are setting the stage for the meal. Subtly review the place setting and remember the mnemonic BMW, which in this case stands not for the car but for Bread-Meal-Water. This way you will know that your bread-and-butter plate is to the left, water glass to the right. Place your napkin on your lap when you sit down. (The waiter may do this for you, or, if there is an official host, wait until she puts the napkin on her lap, and then do the same.)

Look at the menu and quickly decide what you want to eat. You will appear indecisive if you can’t make up your mind. My mantra is: Order what you know how to eat, what you like to eat, and what is easy to eat. A business meal is not the time for sloppy or difficult-to-eat dishes – stay away from spaghetti, big juicy hamburgers, and lobsters. Your selection should be in the mid-price range.

Business talk can occur after the order is taken and before the food is served.

You begin eating in the first act if an appetizer, soup or salad is served. Each course should have its own utensils and, generally, you use the utensil farthest from the plate and work your way towards the plate during the course of the meal. Hold and maneuver your utensils correctly. (No pitchfork grips.)

Second Act
During the Second Act, your main course is served. (At a very formal meal, a fish course may be served immediately before the main course.) Make only pleasant comments about your food. Do not send your food back unless it really is inedible. To do so would disrupt the flow of the meal, and potentially embarrass the host. Drink any wine served cautiously and stay sober.

This is the time to talk about topics other than work. Participate in the small talk. Get to know the other people at the dinner, and let them get to know you.

Third Act
In a real play, the Third Act is the most important, as this is when everything is resolved. I think it is the most important because it’s when dessert is served! Coffee is usually served, also, and this is a nice time to tie up any loose ends about business. The host takes care of paying the bill.

Shake hands with, and say goodbye to, the other guests and your host. Thank all of them for a pleasant evening. Make sure you follow up promptly on any business-related promises you made to the potential clients.

There is a lot more information on dining. Read more about business meals in When The Little Things Count.

The following blogs also provide more suggestions on dining etiquette:
-Place Settings: The Secret Language of Dining
How To Treat The Wait Staff With Respect


  1. Anonymous9/05/2012

    From A Reader:
    I really enjoyed your article. It was an extremely creative way to describe how to handle oneself throughout a business meal.

  2. Anonymous9/05/2012

    From A Reader:
    I have also compared a business dinner -- or any formal dinner -- to a team sport, with the sponsor of the dinner/event as the team coach, the table hosts as the team captains, and the guests, diners, chef, sommelier and waitstaff as the team members. In order to have a winning result all the team members must work together, with the sponsor producing the playbook and the table hosts leading their tables accordingly. I've used this approach when addressing college audiences at etiquette dinners, and arrange in advance for the chef, sommelier (if there is one) and waitstaff come out for a bow to enthusiastic applause. This theme works well for students who will be interviewing for internships or getting ready to graduate and job hunt, as employers have listed "teamwork" as one of the top five qualities they are looking for in a candidate.

  3. Anonymous9/05/2012

    From A Reader:
    What a great way to think about it!

  4. Anonymous9/05/2012

    From A Reader:
    Very clever, Barbara, and great tips as usual!

  5. Anonymous9/05/2012

    From A Reader:
    Well done Barbara. Allow the boss to do most of the talking and only speak when asked to.

  6. Anonymous9/05/2012

    From A Reader:
    What's key here is that the young man is essential there to assist the host wow the clients. Therefore, being given that duty he can be less self-conscious about introducing himself around. His bosses want him to cultivate a relationship with potential clients. He needs to focus on the task at hand and help to wine and dine the guests. Best advice: he shouldn't drink if he's nervous.

    The young man should ask questions and listen to the answers. What are these potential clients looking for? Is it a good fit? What do they think about such-and-such?

  7. Anonymous9/06/2012

    From A Reader:
    Also, he needs to be sure that he is well dressed & practices his best manners & etiquette. THINKING is wise advice. He needs to listen & be careful what he says & how he says it.

  8. Anonymous9/06/2012

    From A Reader:
    Excellent piece, Barbara. Emphasizing the team aspect of performing in a play is a lovely visual.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.