10 Things You Should Know about a Business Lunch

business lunchNo, we’re neither Debrett’s nor Emily Post, but we know a thing or two about conducting ourselves properly at a business lunch… we’ve also seen some truly bad manners. Thus, whether you’ve been to a million business lunches or you’re just starting out, 10 Things You Should Know:

1. As soon as everyone at the table is seated, that napkin goes in your lap. If you need to get up at some point, the napkin should be folded and placed on your chair. (Not the table — no one likes to look at a dirty napkin.) At the very end of the meal, when everyone is finished eating, you should fold you napkin and put it beneath your plate, to the left. This holds true even if you’re eating at a diner with paper napkins.

2. Your water glass is to your right. Your bread dish is to your left. If you get confused, put your hands in your lap and touch the index finger of your left hand to your left thumb, and do the same with your right — your left hand should form a “b” (for BREAD) and your right hand should form a “d” (for DRINK). We’ve also heard to think “BMW”: bread, middle, water.

3. If you are the host (or assisting the host, as it with many mid-level people), it’s good manners to make sure things are passed: butter, cream, salt & pepper. Pass the salt & pepper as a unit. Even if someone only asks for salt.

4. If you’re confused about which silverware to use, use the piece of silverware farthest away from the plate. When you’re done eating, the silverware should be laid on the plate diagonally in the upper-righthand corner, to signify to the waiter that you’re done.

5. Pay attention to what other people are ordering. Don’t be the girl on the diet who won’t have an appetizer even though everyone else is. Also, don’t be that jerky guy to order an appetizer even though no one else did, and then sit there smacking your lips about how amazing the bisque is, when no one else GOT the bisque because we all thought it would be a nice, quick lunch. (Not that we’re bitter or anything.) It’s 100% acceptable to order an appetizer to start and an appetizer for the main entree — no one cares what you’re eating so long as you’re eating at the same time everyone else is.

6. When in doubt, cut your food with fork and knife. Huge piece of lettuce? Cut it. The rule with fries is that if you’re eating the rest of your meal with a knife and fork, fries should also be eaten with the fork. (E.g., steak frites.) If you’re eating the rest of your meal with your hands, however, fries should be eaten with your hands. (E.g., burger.)

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7. Here’s the proper way to use a fork and knife, courtesy of CollegeRecruiter.com:

While there are several different ways to hold and use a knife and fork correctly, the most common method used in the United States is as follows:
• When you eat, your fork is held in your right hand, like a pencil. (For all of your lefties out there, the fork is still held in the right hand.) The tines (your prongs on the fork) face up.
• When you cut your food, switch hands. Fork goes in the left hand, knife goes in the right to cut. Using your index finger, point your fork with tines down to pierce your food.
• Switch the fork back in the right hand to eat.

8. Proper etiquette is not always what you might think: olives with pits should be placed in your mouth, and the pit should be removed with your hand and laid on the side of your plate. (Not hidden in your napkin or beneath your plate.) Asparagus is properly eaten with your hands, provided it is not covered in sauce.

9. Blackberries should be kept under the table at all times. You should excuse yourself from the table to use a cell phone.

10. All of the above goes out the window if the most senior person at the table is doing things differently. Unless they’re the adorably-batty-head-of-the-company-in-name-only, follow them.

Have more business etiquette questions? Write to [email protected] and we’ll either a) answer ’em, b) find someone who will, or c) do a poll. Because we heart polls. And etiquette. And answers. (In no particular order, clearly.)


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  1. I have always heard that cutting your lettuce was really bad manners.
    the lettuce you are eating is supposed to have been cut in small enough pieces so eating it is not an issue.
    if this has not been properly done, you “fold” the leave, not cut it.

    • In formal dining, a salad course should be served with a salad fork and a salad knife. Not only might the lettuce be served as a “wedge salad”, but the knife is used as a “fence” to push other small pieces of salad ingredients against the fork. :-)

    • Lettuce wedges (about 1/4 of a head of lettuce) are quite popular these days, and usually come already “covered” with dressing, bacon, bleu cheese, etc. It would be totally inappropriate, not to mention time consuming, to sit there bending the leaves and dropping bacon bits all over the place.

  2. Love the blog! I excerpted some of your tips and passed them on here… Corporette’s going on my blogroll. xoxo

  3. Just a Girl :

    Ohmygod, do not eat asparagus with your fingers at a business lunch! Don’t eat anything with your fingers unless it’s a dinner roll or “finger food” at a cocktail. And don’t order the messy bacon cheeseburger that you have to eat with your hands. Trust me. In my early days, I experienced having grease drip down the front of my shirt, just to be teased that it was sexy. (Not the look I was going for).
    I read once that the queen never orders spaghetti, because she knows it will splatter and be embarrassing to eat.
    Having a business lunch w/ people you don’t know and need to impress? Order neat food.

  4. Hiya..

    My employer loves going to this little family run restaurant where all entree.. main course.. dessert is all served at one go.. odd.. but thats how they do it there.. but I must admit.. the food is fabs! My problem is I can never figure out when I should eat the dinner roll.. Some of my collegues have the dinner roll before the main course, some with and others after. But can you please tell me when is the right time to have it?

  5. Anonymous :

    I agree with #7 except in formal, international settings. Then leave your American ways at the door and use your left hand to hold the fork.

  6. crossrdblue :

    Seriously! That is not how you use a knife and fork anyplace but in the middle of the United States. Why not educate the United States on how to use a knife and fork the proper way, like the rest of the world does, instead of perpetuating the bizarre knife and fork eating habits of our Puritan founders?

  7. I was also very surprised at the knife and fork instructions, but that’s because I learned to eat in the UK :)
    I have to think, unless you eat like a complete pig, the method where your fork stays in your left hand is usually OK. I’ve never had anyone look at me funny for that, although I will watch more closely now!

  8. As a strongly left-handed person, I have always held my fork in my left hand, although I eat “American style,” switching the fork to my right so that I can hold the knife in my (coordinated) left when I need to cut meat. This has never been a problem, especially not when interacting with European clients. Please temper your recommendation with the understanding that people who eat without disturbing or disgusting their neighbors should not be reproached.

  9. I was raised in the South and taught all of these things, including the difference between a crystal iced tea glass and a crystal water goblet. With lettuce, especially if they serve a sliced wedge like they often do in the Midwest, you have to cut it. Otherwise you will have the blue cheese dripping all over the place and you will be sorry. You can cut up anything with a knife and fork if that’s the way to be elegant about it. I practiced in DC for years and I never thought anybody needed to know this one — DO NOT CHEW WITH YOUR MOUTH OPEN! Or talk with food in your mouth! Or smack your lips! OMG I have seen senior partners do this in front of clients and you better be a really good lawyer to overcome everybody at the table pitying you for not knowing any better.

  10. Anonymous :

    It’s a little backwards to ask lefties to switch to eat, and seems not dissimilar to asking them to switch when writing. I’m very, very left handed and there’s no way I could eat a meal with the fork in my right hand. People would probably think I was trying to start a food fight or something.

    I do have to be aware of bumping elbows with people, but I usually just try to sit on a corner.

  11. New reader :

    I’m a lefty as some other readers are and agree wholeheartedly–I will continue to hold my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right because it’s the neatest and easiest way for me–and the best way not to draw excessive attention.

    It’s also an easy way to spot other lefties, which for whatever reason, can be a something to bond over…

  12. poo-tee-weet :

    Plates don’t have corners. At least most of them.

  13. poo-tee-weet: thanks for the tip…I spent the last hour looking for the corners on my round dishes.

  14. Justdroppingby :

    I would like to add two things.

    First, as has already been mentioned, you should certainly never use advice number 7 at a business lunch. The reasons can be the following:
    a) If you cut all your food before eating it:
    – It is the way you might eat at home on the couch in front of the TV, when you can’t be bothered to use both hands, or when you’re sitting at your desk holding a document, so you can eat and read at the same time.
    – It is reminiscent of the way you would eat as a child before mastering the use of a knife. Remember when a parent would cut all your food into smaller mangeble pieces for you to eat with a fork?
    – It will also leave your plate looking dissected and messy (and you as well by association).
    b) If you switch hands between each cut:
    – You will have to switch hands multiple times. It will be noticeable and leave the impression that you are incapable of using your left hand to pick up a piece of food from your plate using a fork.

    Secondly I would add a number 11 that relates to number 5 a bit:
    “Always try to eat at the same pace as the rest of your party”

    If you are a particularly slow eater, and find your plate still half full when everyone else have finished their dish, people will be forced to wait for you to finish, and you will find yourself under pressure to finish quickly. In this case it might be better to eat a little more and then leave the rest of the dish (unless it is an appetizer, in which case this might seem a little odd).
    Inversely if you finish much sooner than everyone else, you will put them in the uncomfortable position of being the one/ones that are waited for.
    Always remember that a meal has a certain flow of eating and talking, and try to follow it.

    There can be some “dangers” associated with this problem.
    Finishing much later than others can be a sign that you are unwittingly monopolizing the conversation (talking more than eating). Of course there can be times when this is necessary because you have been asked to give an explanation of something.
    Inversely finishing much sooner than others, could mean that you haven’t engaged in the conversation enough, making you seem either uninterested or uninformed to your lunch partners.
    Remember, a business lunch is about much more than just the food.

  15. SouthernLady :

    I’ve always heard that your dirty napkin never goes on the table. After eating, it remains in your lap until you get up to leave, then it goes in the seat of the chair. Has anyone else heard that?

    • Also, as it relates to the “napkin in the chair”; while there are a few etiquette consultants promoting this method, most experts would agree that a dirty napkin should not be placed on a chair as it can soil the upholstery of the chair. Napkins are placed to the left of the plate, slightly rumpled when temporarily leaving the table or when finished with the meal.

  16. Lynn Rosen :

    NEVER put your dirty napkin on the table. Most people don’t know this, but it certainly makes sense that if you don’t want to leave your “ketchup-stained” nappy on the table while you go to the loo, you certainly wouldn’t change the pragmatic rules when you leave the table for good.

  17. miami law :

    Gosh those knife and fork instructions are horrible. I always hold fork in left knife in right… unless its dessert. What’s with the switching … that to me is very poor manners.

  18. I surprised that this didn’t make the cut:
    Never ever order soda or beer during a business lunch or interview lunch. Nothing is worse than being mid-sentence when an unexpected “bbrrrraaap” comes a-rumblin’ out of your pie-hole. I always stick with iced tea or some non-carbonated beverage.

    And also, don’t salt your food before you taste it. Now I’m a heavy salter, always have been, but salting before tasting can give off the impression that you make decision without knowing all the facts, like how salty the dish already is.

  19. Delta Sierra :

    Please, everyone learn to eat European style. It will gain you snob-points wherever you go. And you will avoid “euw” points more often than you think. Non-Americans think the American style is barbarous. I’m sorry, but it’s true, and you should know.

    I’ve never heard of a napkin going on a chair seat, because, ick, people’s bottoms go there, and god knows when it was last cleaned. If your napkin is all over ketchup you’ve already lost the game, but anyhow, when you leave the table, fold it loosely into itself and put it beside your plate. At the end of the meal, it goes on top of whatever plate is still in front of you, although at a good restaurant there won’t be a plate or bowl left there at this point.

    • You are right Delta – if there is that much damage to a napkin, let’s hope it wasn’t a business lunch! However, napkin goes to the left of the “place setting” when finished, not on the plate (if there is one still there). :-)

  20. A pointer: don’t eat messy food–drippy, gloppy–it’s just bad style–you’re working, really, and consider your image. Take small enough bites that you will be able to chew and swallow before you join in if need be. You are working, remember. Be careful of fussy foods that distract you from what’s being said at the table. Be wary of red sauce and long pasta–I always manage to get a dot or tow on my front, no matter how hard I try.

    I look for food that is small and easy to eat, not too chewy, drippy, etc. Chicken breasts, say. Fish filets. Small shapes of pasta.

    Never forget you are working. Same goes for cocktail parties.

  21. People, it is flat out rude to assume that people should follow your customs wherever you are. I don’t care if you think that Americans have a barbarous way of eating with a knife and fork. In America, it is not rude, anymore than using chopsticks is rude in countries where that is the norm or eating with your hands in places where that is the norm. (I know, I know, countries where they use chopsticks or their hands are “exotic” whereas Americans are just boorish. Deal.) And you really need to reevaluate your life if you’re that invested in the way a particular country tends to teach children to manuever food into its mouth being “wrong.” Jesus Christ.

    • I agree with this. In our “finishing classes” in the US 20 years ago – as ridiculous as it may sound – this is what was taught and I’ve yet to see anyone from the US and a privileged background who had an issue with it. Of course the first rule of all is to blend in with the dinner party and do as they do, generally. If no one else knows the rule, they won’t notice. If they do, they still probably won’t notice. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to do it in such a way as to attract attention. But it *is* the standard “rule” of thumb.

      Now I’m privileged to work with a global, well-traveled crowd and you’ll find both the US and the European style of eating at the same table. It’s not a big deal to anyone that I can see and if there are any anti-American judgments being made, they are usually coming on the tail of many other anti-american snips and jibes made previously. Some people have issues and we just have to let them own those.

  22. Eat asparagus with your fingers?? I have never heard of that…and would be shocked (and think it was in poor taste) if someone did that.

  23. Beware the luncheon/job interview! Many hiring managers are eager to learn how a potential hire will handle herself at the table, so a meal is often scheduled as part of the interview process. Anyone who thinks table manners are irrelevant are sadly mistaken. If you’re not sure what’s what, I’ll send you my Business Etiquette 101 booklet free of charge! Write to me at [email protected]

    Here are the big 5 mistakes I see all too often:

    The butter sandwich (where a roll is sliced horizontally, one side is slathered with butter, and the top is replaced and eaten like a sandwich). Bread is broken, never cut, and buttered and eaten one piece at a time.

    Mishandling Utensils. Amercian or Continental style, learn how to handle a knife and fork, for heaven’s sake.

    Use of the Phone/BlackBerry. It is very poor form to take phone calls or engage the BlackBerry while at the table. Put these gizmos in the “off” position until the meal is finished. Just because the boss checks her PDA doesn’t give you permission to check yours.

    Slurping, smacking and licking fingers. Ugh! Don’t order ANYTHING that you would eat with your hands (sandwich, hamburger, fries, etc.). Avoid all messy dishes (spaghetti, ribs, whole lobster), and stick to a simple piece of chicken, steak, fish or a salad. DO NOT pick at the food on your plate with your fingers.

    Grooming at the table. Excuse yourself and visit the ladies’ room when you want to add lipstick, freshen make-up, do anything with your hair, or check for spinach between teeth. When you leave the table, the napkin goes on the chair, not the table (the napken is gently folded and placed on the left side of the plate – or where the plate used to be – when the meal is finished).

  24. I am surprised that no one has mentioned the four B’s… Break Bread Before Buttering. After selecting your bread or roll, when taking butter, using your knife put the butter on your bread plate. Never take butter from the butter dish and put it directly on your bread. Never. Always put it on your bread plate. Then, break off a piece and butter it before eating. Do not butter the full piece of bread. Do not butter numerous pieces at the same time. Always butter only the piece you intend to eat.

    This is one of the most common mistakes I see at business lunches. And it is also one of the first signs of lack of manners.

  25. And remember to pass food (the bread basket, etc.) to the person on your right.

  26. Catherine :

    I usually enjoy Corporette’s posts but I think this post is a bit retro, uptight and could get you in trouble. Yes, most of the old etiquette books do say to eat asparagus with your fingers but I believe if a person did that at the vast majority of business lunches, people would be surprised (and not in a good way). I am glad the post recommends switching hands with your fork when cutting your food because the etiquette books I read said to absolutely never switch hands and I find it very awkward to use my left hand for my fork throughout a meal (I am right-handed). The trouble with this is that a lot of people have different ideas as to what is proper etiquette (such as never switch hands when with fork and knife, pulling an olive pit out of one’s mouth and putting it down, eating asparagus with your hands). Also, it is so retro. Just be polite and neat and don’t eat with your mouth open.

  27. Read Emily Post! :

    From Emily Post: Question for the week of August 4, 2008

    Q. Where should the dinner napkin be placed if you excuse yourself from the table during a meal?

    A. If you leave the table during a meal, you should place your napkin to the left of your place setting. If you were to place it on your chair you might forget when you return and sit on a soiled napkin. This probably wouldn’t be good for either you or the chair. But, if there is absolutely no room because the table settings are so close together, you may lay it on your chair.

  28. Hi all,

    Lots of confusion and contradictions. I am an etiquette consultant and I’d like to clear somethings up.
    1. It is OK for lefties to do the opposite of the right handers.
    2. The American style of eating IS proper and acceptable. You can chose to eat either the zig zag style of passing the fork back and forth between hands and eating the item with your fork in the right hand (if you’re a righty) with tines up. Or you can eat Continental style with fork in left hand, tines down and knife always in your right hand (again for righties, reversed for lefties).
    3. Napkin always stays on your lap during the entire meal unless you get up during the meal. Then it goes on your chair. At the end of the meal the napkin goes to the left of the plate, not ON the plate, scrunched up so you don’t see any stains.
    4. Ashley is correct on how to butter bread. Put butter on bread plate, NOT directly on your bread. Break off a small piece of bread, butter it, then eat. Never butter the whole roll.
    5. When you are finished eating, your knife and fork should be together at 4:00 on your plate facing towards 10:00 NOT on the upper right corner. A good waiter will know that means you’re finished.
    6. Be respectful, courteous and don’t ask personal questions or share personal information – “What’s that pill for?”, “I’m on a diet, I can’t eat that.”…

    Good manners will be noticed and will take you far.

    • Hi Arden, nice to meet a peer in the industry and thank you for clearing up some of the confusion. However, as a graduate of The American School of Protocol and fellow etiquette professional, I don’t think we are EVER going to clear up the controversy of the “napkin on the chair”. :-) I wish we could, but there is too much myth and disagreement abound on that one. I am sure there will be comments in here about “getting a life” if this is all we have to talk about; but you and I both know, as many do, that proper table manners and dining etiquette can make or break a deal so, while my advice is “left of the place setting area” always; I am just happy if people hold their utensils properly, use proper Silent Service Codes, and chew with their mouth closed.

      • Hi Magnolia Etiquette,

        Nice to “meet” you too. Yes, there are many etiquette rules, but the bottom line is if we treat others with courtesy and kindness we are doing well.

        There is indeed much disagreement about the napkin. My etiquette trainer also subscribed to the napkin to the left of the plate when getting up during the meal. I had to differ. But hey, if the napkin doesn’t get thrown on the floor we’re doing well. :-)

        • Agreed! I am working on a survey on a few “controversial etiquette” subjects, particularly “The Napkin” and am contacting every consultant, trainer, professional in the industry that I can find for their comments so I will duly note your preference.

          I’m looking forward to seeing what the percentage is and using it as a guideline in teaching. It might sound like a dental commercial, “9 out of 10 etiquette professionals prefer napkin on the table” (or chair), but I’m truly interested in the statistics on some of these subjects.

  29. Re: “If you need to get up at some point, the napkin should be folded and placed on your chair. (Not the table — no one likes to look at a dirty napkin.) At the very end of the meal, when everyone is finished eating, you should fold you napkin and put it beneath your plate, to the left. ”

    No no no no no. The napkin DOES NOT get folded; it is NOT a clean napkin but a used napkin. Please. Gather it in your hand before you put it down, but DO NOT fold it.

  30. OldHouseGal :

    I haven’t seen anyone yet mention putting down your utensils when engaged in animated conversation. Do not gesticulate with knife and fork in hand! And, as I tell my children, swallow that last bite before you take another.

  31. In formal dining, a salad course should be served with a salad fork and a salad knife. Not only might the lettuce be served as a “wedge salad”, but the knife is used as a “fence” to push other small pieces of salad ingredients against the fork. :-)

    Read more: http://corporette.com/2008/05/12/10-things-you-should-know-about-a-business-lunch/#ixzz1fxuYWIpC

  32. Also, as it relates to the “napkin in the chair”; while there are a few etiquette consultants promoting this method, most experts would agree that a dirty napkin should not be placed on a chair as it can soil the upholstery of the chair. Napkins are placed to the left of the plate, slightly rumpled when temporarily leaving the table or when finished with the meal.

    Read more: http://corporette.com/2008/05/12/10-things-you-should-know-about-a-business-lunch/#ixzz1fxv6KR6d

  33. Also, as it relates to the “napkin in the chair”; while there are a few etiquette consultants promoting this method, most experts would agree that a dirty napkin should not be placed on a chair as it can soil the upholstery of the chair. Napkins are placed to the left of the plate, slightly rumpled when temporarily leaving the table or when finished with the meal.

  34. Anonymous :

    nobody eats asparagus with their hands…

  35. That Weird Girl :

    Wish I saw this earlier today! Although I think I did all right, I even buttered my bread correctly! I think the main thing is that if you’re in a group, it’s totally legitimate to mirror what others are doing, especially if they’re older than you or have been with the company longer. You don’t want to seem like a pig, but you don’t want to be super prim and proper while everyone else is acting more casually.

  36. Often Expat :

    Very interesting post. It strikes me that it is important to be conscious of where you find yourself. I attended a business dinner in London where there was one person using their knife and fork ‘American style’ whilst all the other diners were eating in (what I had assumed up until I read this post was the ‘correct’) ‘Continental style’ and there were unfortunately comments made about it afterwards about how the person didn’t know how to behave at a formal dinner. Similarly, I imagine if one were to dine in a more ‘exotic’ location one would take pains to eat with your hands/use chopsticks if that is the accepted practice.

  37. “Pay attention to what other people are ordering”

    No matter if it’s a formal or a casual business lunch, this point is absolutely spot on. Don’t be the one whos food takes ages to make or the one who orders the largest steak when everyone else are eating salad.

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