When you're dining out with colleagues, clients, or volunteers for business, it's the business that's more important, not the dinner. A successful business dinner in North America -- or at least a business dinner which is pleasanter and more focused -- can depend on how distracted you or others are by your food or other stimuli. Herewith, Etiquetteer's Eight Tips for Business Dinners:
1. First and foremost, your electronic devices have not been invited. Tweets, beeps, and dings from your iPhone, Blackberry, etc., will distract you and your colleague from the purpose of your dinner. Unless you're expecting information pertinent to your discussion, turn them off and keep them in your purse or pocket.
2. That said, at a business dinner it's sometimes necessary to have papers on the table or to take notes on a PDA. Try to do so as unobtrusively as possible.
3. Don't order difficult or messy food. The more you have to pay attention to what's on your plate and how to get it into your mouth without making a mess, the less attention you have to pay to your colleague. French onion soup, stringy pasta, chicken or fish with lots of bones, etc. have been known to defeat experts. Etiquetteer was once defeated by a cherry tomato in a salad! Too round and glossy for a fork tine to penetrate, Etiquetteer chased it all over the salad plate, only to be rewarded with a shot of tomato guts on his white shirt. A Pyrrhic victory, to be sure.
3a. A quick pasta tutorial: spaghetti, linguine, angel hair, and vermicelli are stringy and troublesome. Gnocchi, tortellini, ziti, farfalle, and orzo pastas are more diner-friendly.
4. Don't be difficult about your food. Oddly enough, the central purpose of a business dinner isn't dinner; it's business! If you have more than two questions for the waiter, or need to be extra-precise with instructions, again, you're distracting from your real reason for meeting with your colleague. Keep your order simple. Allergies in many restaurants can be accommodated by telling your waiter "Please, no [Insert Foodstuff To Which You Are Allergic Here], I have a fatal allergy."
5. Don't take a long time to decide. For goodness sake, it's just food! If you end up not liking your dinner, you can always snack on something later at home, or call room service. Thinking people will even arrive at the restaurant knowing what they want to order, having checked the menu online in advance. Etiquetteer highly recommends this procedure.
6. Don't bury your face in your plate. Sometimes even simple food drags us completely into our dinner plates. Don't forget to look up and remain engaged with your colleague with eye contact. During one business meeting in which Etiquetteer was mentally drifting away, a colleague quickly called him back to attention by using his name in a sentence. Trust Etiquetteer, this is effective!
7. All the usual table manners apply: don't talk with your mouth full, no elbows on the table, don't gesture with your silverware, don't put used silverware on the tablecloth, etc.
8. Many people have been taught that it's rude to talk about the food. These days it's polite to ask a dining companion in a restaurant how they like their dinner, but it needn't become your central topic of conversation.
More on this subject again soon!