Surviving the Business Dinner:

Have you ever had an interview over dinner that you thought went great, only to get a big ding the next day? Have you ever had lunch with a client who looked more and more physically ill as the meal progressed and then called you the next day to cancel your $7 Million contract? Maybe you’re just a poor judge of your interviewer’s reactions to your carefully worded responses. Maybe the egg on your client’s steak tartar was rotten. Or maybe, just maybe, YOU blew it because you kept answering your cell phone during dinner while shoveling whole chicken breasts into your mouth, gripping your fork like a screwdriver and your knife like a hacksaw, while insulting the waiter and spilling shots of Jagermeister on your tie.

That’s exactly what Roseanne Thomas, President of Protocol Advisors was trying to prevent from happening to HBS students during her recent seminar on business dining etiquette.

Protocol Advisors Inc. is a Boston-based consulting firm that has been specializing in the areas of Business and Social Etiquette, International Business Protocol, and Etiquette for Children and Young Adults for the past nine years. HBS is not the only prestigious client on their list either. The consultants at PA have taken their “etiquation” (I’m in the process of copyrighting this word) to such notable clients as Goldman Sachs, Harvard Club of Boston, Fidelity Investments, US Navy, Liberty Mutual, Yale, and MIT. They have been publicized by highly regarded media such as CBS, National Public Radio, and the Wall Street Journal, just to name a few.

The Harbus had the opportunity to run a few questions by Ms. Thomas and settle some burning debates on the fine art of business dining.

Harbus: Why is business dining such an important art to master and why is dining etiquette in particular so closely scrutinized?

Roseanne Thomas: Business dining skills are critical as they speak to an individual’s overall respect for others, attention to detail and concern for mastering all of the skills necessary for successful business dealings.

Studies tell us that the way we conduct ourselves in the dining room is at least as important as the way we conduct ourselves in the boardroom, and that our manners will be noticed and judged.

Harbus: What are the 5 most important things you need to remember when dining on business?

RT: There are so many things we need to know! Among the most important is being able to distinguish between a host’s responsibilities and a guest’s responsibilities. This knowledge will enable everyone to play his or her part to perfection. Other skills include knowing which fork to use and how to hold one’s silverware, not talking when one’s mouth is full, knowing how to handle accidents at the table, engaging appropriately in conversation, etc.

Harbus: Can you share some dining horror stories with us? What are the biggest faux pas you have witnessed or heard of?

RT: Horror stories abound! Taking telephone calls during the meal, complaining about the food and/or expounding upon one’s dietary preferences, allergies, political or religious reasons for not eating particular foods, etc., drinking too much, not engaging in conversation, acting rudely toward the staff waiting on the table and so on.

Harbus: What is the most common dining etiquette mistake you see being made?

RT: Not holding the utensils properly. It would seem easy and is, but many people have not mastered it.

Harbus: Say you sit down to a business dinner with a job interviewer or a prospective client. They order only a side salad or a small appetizer. Do you follow suit or succumb to your hunger and go for the rib eye?

RT: If your job interviewer or prospective client orders only a salad or appetizer, you should do the same. We match them course for course and never want them to think our primary concern is scoring a free meal!

Harbus: What are some of the cultural challenges of business dining in a global economy?

RT: In the international arena, it is vital to remember that all successful business dealings depend upon the formation and strength of a relationship, which is most often developed over the business meal.

Critical attention must be paid to the dining and entertaining customs of the country one is visiting to avoid inadvertently offending someone and possibly derailing a promising relationship.

Harbus: So how did the folks at HBS do during the seminar? Let’s say a 5 is “Products of Queen Elizabeth’s Private Tutelage” and 1 is “Mom Raised All of Us on Big Macs”.

RT: The HBS students could in large part tutor royalty! I will venture there are a few nuances upon which even HRH could brush up.

Harbus: That scene in Titanic, where Kathy Bates tells Leonardo di Caprio to use the silverware farthest away from his plate and move in from there, – is that truth or Hollywood mumbo jumbo?

RT: Truth, and not Hollywood mumbo jumbo, in this case. Of course, we are assuming the place is set correctly, and no one is setting that age-old etiquette trap!

Harbus: In an episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza once used a knife and fork to eat his Snicker’s bar during a business meeting. Good idea? Bad idea?

RT: George Costanza would correctly be considered affected (if he used) utensils on his Snickers bar. Some foods are eaten by hand, and this is one of them, unless, of course, it were crumpled up atop some Cherry Garcia or Chubby Hubby!

So there you have it folks, the tip of the iceberg that if minded carefully will prevent your business dinner from turning into a Titanic disaster. Waiter, check please!