Is it okay to hit on the waitress during a business meal?
This week, I will be teaching a class on dining etiquette at the Rutgers Career Center in Camden, NJ.
As I prepared for this event, I thought about some of the questions I have been asked at other seminars on dining etiquette that I have taught to business professionals and university students around the country.
The question above came from a young man at a fraternity dinner. It is one of many questions that my participants have asked about how to handle themselves at a business meal – though this one was a little more unusual than most.
The answer to the young man’s question was a pleasant, “No… The dinner is a business activity.” He smiled back and said, “I thought you would say that!”
Generally, the questions participants asked were more involved, with many requiring an understanding of the correct placement of dishes and utensils. They included:
- Have I used the right water glass?
- What are those utensils at the top of my plate?
- Am I eating my neighbor’s bread?
- When is it okay to take my napkin off the table and place it on my lap?
Reading a place setting accurately during a business meal is important – you want to spend your time connecting with the other diners, not worrying whether you have used the correct bread plate.
Since place settings vary depending on which restaurant you visit, knowing some general guidelines can be helpful. Here are six suggestions, along with an illustration of a sample place setting:
1. Use the following memory tricks. They will help you remember the correct placement of plates, glasses and utensils.
-Think of the “BMW” (Bread, Meal, Water). It will remind you that your bread-and-butter plate is on the left, and your water glass is on the right.
-Remember your “Left” and “Right.” Food is placed to the left of the dinner plate. The words food and left both have four letters; if the table is set properly, your bread or salad or any other food dish will be placed to the left of your dinner plate. Similarly, drinks are placed to the right of the dinner plate, and the words glass (or drink) and right contain five letters. Any glass or drink will be placed to the right of the dinner plate.
Left and Right also work for your utensils. Your fork (four letters) goes to the left; your knife and spoon (five letters each) go to the right.
2. Learn the utensils. Don’t be like the great dramatist Oscar Wilde, who said: “The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.” The largest fork is generally the entrée fork. The salad fork is smaller, and, depending where in the world you are dining, the salad may be served before the main course or after. The largest spoon is usually the soup spoon. If you are having a fish course, you may see the fish knife and fork as part of the place setting. The utensils above the plate are the dessert fork and spoon, although these may sometimes be placed on either side of the plate, or brought in with the dessert.
3. Place your napkin on your lap when you sit down. The waiter sometimes does this for you. If there is an official host for the dinner, wait until she puts her napkin on her lap, and then do the same.
4. As a general rule, navigate your place setting from the outside in. Each course should have its own utensils. Additional information on place settings and dining can be found in my book, The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success.
5. Don’t panic if you use the wrong utensil. When the course arrives for which you need that utensil, just ask the waiter for another. If a dinner companion uses your utensil, quietly ask the server for another.
6. Do what your host does. If you don’t know what to do, copy what your host is doing. You may not be right, but you are not wrong.
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