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A Better Business Lunch

Congratulations. You know your salad fork from your dinner fork, and you never put your elbows on the table. But have you ever found yourself trying to eat spaghetti without slurping or ordering dessert while everyone else is eating their entrees?

As it turns out, knowing the basics of etiquette is not enough, especially when it comes to business dining. In her book, “Share a Meal. Close a Deal. Business Dining from A-Z,” etiquette expert Lynne Breil makes it clear that dining out for business is not just about eating; it’s also about creating a pleasant, convivial, near distraction-free atmosphere that makes it easy to dine and do business.

Here are a few points Breil, who has been central Pennsylvania’s “manners maven” for more than 20 years, makes about business dining that you might not have considered.

Stay in Step

“I always say that the business meal should be like a dance,” Breil said. What that means is that eating faster or slower than those around you is like stepping on their toes during a waltz. “You don’t want to be finishing your steak while your dining partner is looking at the dessert menu,” she said. Keeping the same dining pace shows consideration, looks better — dining is, after all, as much about what you see as what you taste — and makes servers’ work easier. Because there are fewer interruptions, the flow of conversation is smoother.

Identify and Quash Nervous Habits

If you twist your hair, crinkle straw papers, drum your fingers or turn napkins into origami, you unwittingly become a dining distraction, Breil said. Because we don’t see our own nervous tics, ask a friend or co-worker for their assessment. “Ask a colleague who you trust to give you honest feedback,” she said. “Tell them, ‘If I am doing something that looks weird, kick me under the table.’” You can also ask a supervisor to provide feedback on your dining habits. And if you are a supervisor, you might be doing your employees a favor if you nicely give them feedback about their table manners, said Breil. “No one likes to be criticized, but these are things we might not even know we are doing. In most cases, your manners are not going to lose a deal or a job, but it is visual, and it is a fixed impression.”

Stay in Your Seat

Unless the meal lasts hours, avoid leaving the table, especially when you are the host, Breil said. There are exceptions, of course. If you are expecting an important phone call, tell your dining companions beforehand. A simple “I might need to take a call” is a sufficient explanation and prevents you from appearing rude when you do take the call. If you are the host and service is slow or otherwise problematic, leave the table to discuss it with the manager or maitre d’ so your guests don’t have to suffer through the discussion, Breil said. “The other time you leave the table is to do anything your mother told you not to do at the table,” she said; for example, clearing your sinuses or removing spinach from your teeth.

Choose Your Restaurant and Meal Wisely

If you are the host of a business meal, choose a restaurant you can count on for good food and service. When you dine in a place that you know and that knows you, you’ll be better able to focus on your guests, said Breil. Avoid meals that are messy or hard to eat. And don’t spend precious time studying a menu. Breil suggests having a “go-to” meal and drink. “Remember, this is not your last supper,” she said. “Go with your go-to entree so you can focus on your guests.”

Prepare for Small Talk

Unless you want to spend your time talking about the weather, do research and reading beforehand about your dining companions’ organization and its culture. Use websites and social media to key on positive announcements the company has made or on industry issues.

Control the Seating

If you are the host, think ahead about who would be good dining companions, and orchestrate seating as guests come to the table, said Breil. Seat people who have similar work responsibilities and similar authority together, and don’t allow co-workers to cluster.

For more tips or for copy of Breil’s book, visit or call 717-755-3333.