When I was a young professional, there were a few business dining dilemmas that always caused me to anxiously shift in my chair as I wondered what to do. These were situations that I hadn’t thought through because the answers seemed obvious. Oh, how I agonized. If only I could tell my younger self to lighten up – stuff happens! Based on my conversations with young professionals, these dilemmas – along with a surprising new one – are still causing worry. So, here they are, some of the most awkward moments of business dining and my advice on how to handle them. Hope it helps. And remember – lighten up – stuff happens!
1. Your dining companion has food on her face.
This one seems elementary; we all know the answer – tell her. But in real life, it is a lot harder to do because who wants to risk embarrassing someone? Especially if that someone is your boss, a client or someone you want to hire you? My advice: try the tried and true signal of lighting tapping your chin – most people will get the hint after a few tries. If not, someone else will usually assist in successfully notifying the person with the butter chip on her chin.
2. You discover an offensive bit of food in your mouth.
Traditional etiquette instructs that if you get a bit of gristle or other offending food in your mouth, you are to drop it from your mouth to your fork and put it on the edge of your plate – and continue dining. This is another theory v. real-life moment. I don’t think I am alone in finding this idea both horrifying and disgusting. Also, because it is not a widely practiced rule, I suspect that doing this in front of business associates would land you in the dining hall of shame. (This doesn’t include fish bones, which, due to a potential choking hazard, should be removed immediately from your mouth with your fingers.)
My advice: Other etiquette experts will scold me for saying this, but barring excusing yourself from the table (which may not be possible), use your napkin. Here is how it’s done: deposit the bit of food quickly and quietly, fold the napkin as securely as you can, signal to your server, hand her the napkin, and with a knowing look, say that the napkin is soiled and ask for another. The server will understand, you will get a fresh napkin, and your dining companions won’t have to pretend that they aren’t queasy from looking at the bit of who-knows-what on the edge of your plate.
3. You need to go to the bathroom.
Again, this is a situation that appears to be a no-brainer, but in reality may cause young professionals to hesitate. What if someone is in the middle of an important point? Also, a needed bathroom break can cause embarrassment if you have already gone once before. (A pregnant woman or someone with a health condition may need to go frequently.) My advice: If you can, wait for a natural pause in the conversation, say, “Please excuse me,” and leave the table. It will be understood that you need a bathroom break. Occasionally, someone will ask where you are going. Ignoring them would be rude, so quietly respond “restroom” and keep moving – it is doubtful that there will be follow up questions.
4. You’re not sure when to start talking about business.
This is another one of those questions to which the answer in theory is obvious, but not so much in real-life. Traditionally, the host would begin a business meal with small talk and after about 30 minutes, get down to business. These days, with business being conducted over breakfast, lunch and dinner, the timing varies. My advice: Listen for verbal cues from your host, such as asking a question or making a statement about your job experience or other business related topic.
5. You can’t tell when the meal has ended.
The host is charged with the duty of announcing the end of a business meal, but in my experience this can be tricky. Nothing is more awkward than eating dessert, while your host blankly stares at you, politely maintaining her patience. How to avoid this awkward moment? My advice: Decline dessert unless your host says that she is indulging too. Also, listen to verbal cues and watch her body language. Did she thank you for coming at the end of the main course? Does she really seem interested in that second cup of coffee she’s offering? Also, don’t depend on the check coming to the table as a sign that the meal has ended – it may never arrive because many hosts arrange to take care of the bill in advance.
6. Someone wants (or doesn’t want) to say grace.
If you guessed that this is the new dilemma, you are right. Until recently, this issue rarely arose for a variety of social and cultural reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. Before I continue, I should disclose my background: I grew up and spent the early part of my career in Northern California’s Bay Area, a global melting pot of ethnic groups and religions. My grandfather was a Baptist minister, my mother and older sister are ministers, I attended parochial school from 1st – 12th grade, I have colleagues, friends and family members who are Methodist, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, Baptist, agnostic and atheist.
That said, remember the rule about not discussing religion at business functions? I believe that asking others to say grace is included in that rule and it should not be done. But, because we live in a religiously tolerant society, I also believe that we should not shut down someone who wants to say grace. Can’t we all just get along? My advice: If you must pray before you eat, pray silently and don’t ask others to join you – it is a business function. (I am assuming the event is not sponsored by a religious organization.) If someone initiates grace and you don’t pray, participate to the extent that you feel comfortable, whatever that may be. Either way – prayer or no prayer – don’t let it cause a potentially ugly exchange about religion.
7. You are not sure if you properly thanked your host.
Many young professionals forget to thank the host properly – offering only a casual thank you at the end of the meal – and then worry that they missed an opportunity to showcase their professional presence. My advice: You should thank the host three times – I call it The Three Point Thank You. Your host will appreciate your gratitude and you won’t have to worry if your final impression was a good one.
The Three Point Thank You:
1. When you meet your host at the restaurant, shake her hand and thank her for the invitation;
2. At the end of the meal, thank her again. (This is a casual thank you.); and
3. Send her a handwritten thank you note the next day.
By Stayce Wagner, Spencer Crane Etiquette, LLC/All rights reserved
Originally published on The Paralegal Society, hosted by Jamie Collins