A colleague recently asked me about a situation that easily can become awkward when people are dining out for business. She wrote in her email:
During a meal with some colleagues, a man stopped at my table to greet me. I didn’t introduce him to the other people at the table. His body posture (he was following someone ahead of him and had his body turned semi-away from the table) seemed to convey he was moving on. Should I have made introductions? What do you do when people stop by your table when you are dining with others? And what should I have done, since I couldn’t recall his name?
It’s natural for people who see others they know to want to greet them. It can feel rude if they don’t. Generally, all that is needed in a restaurant is a brief acknowledgement, a “Hello” possibly followed by a quick comment or two.
If a polite greeter becomes an “interrupter” by staying at the table beyond a brief exchange, the person’s presence can affect the flow of the meal by disrupting the conversation at the table and causing discomfort for those not included in the new conversation, as well as allowing the diners’ food to grow cold. If introductions are attempted, polite diners attempting to rise to acknowledge the interrupter can easily knock over glasses or dishes on the table. Clearly, this is a situation to be avoided if possible – unless, of course, the “interrupter” is your CEO, in which case by all means invite him or her to join you.
Here are a few general guidelines that I offered my colleague to manage a potential “interrupter,” which work equally well for business or social occasions:
1. You usually don’t need to make an introduction if the interruption is very brief. In my colleague’s situation, it was clear that the man was moving on.
2. Ideally, people realize that they are interrupting others and keep their conversation to a minimum. If you get the sense that the person wants to talk, you can say something like, “It has been really nice seeing you. Let’s catch up next week.”
3. If your conversation with an “interrupter” goes beyond a brief comment or two, you need to make introductions. At that point, if you cannot recall his name, you would have to admit it. You could say something like, “I can’t believe it – I’m blanking on your name.”
Additional etiquette information can be found in my book, When The Little Things Count...And They Always Count.
And look for my new etiquette book coming this summer, The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat and Tweet Your Way to Success (McGraw-Hill).