Editor's note: Welcome to our new weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.
The purpose of etiquette is to set everyone at ease so that business can proceed without interference. Therefore, the business meal is merely an extension of any meeting, only -- Miss Conduct hopes -- with more napkins. Plenty of napkins.
As at any meeting, at a meal there is a guest, there is a host, and the roles are as ancient as you feel after a cross-country red-eye.
In the event of a meeting between peers, 'tis a far, far better thing for both parties to err on the side of propriety and quibble over who can make the other more comfortable. "After you," "No, after you!" is music to Miss Conduct's ears.
However, as the most astute businessman among Miss Conduct's acquaintance observes, businessmen and women treat everything as a negotiation. The good news is that the best negotiators among us are infallibly the most gracious.
Remember, keeping everyone comfortable doesn't just affect your bottom line, it
the bottom line.
Just as you make every effort to excel in your chosen field, excel in your duties as host. The goal is to set your guest at ease.
- Choose a restaurant or catering menu that is convenient to your guest, even if you're vegan and your guest prefers the lunch counter at a sausage factory.
- Confirm the place and time with your guest an advance, and double-check with the restaurant or caterer to ensure that you and your guest remain focused on each other, not on the details of the meal. (Unless it's really outstanding. After all, bonding over the next Thomas Keller's cuisine -- or the original one's -- is the whole reason God created expense accounts.) As at any meeting, interruptions should be kept to a strict minimum, whether they occur face-to-face in a club dining room or electronically. In other words: Put. The. CrackBerry. Down.
- Arrive in time to greet your guest when he or she arrives -- and wait at least 30 minutes before you give up on no-shows. Especially in these days of heightened security concerns and last-minute everything, business must proceed with utmost respect for unexpected delays. Even if the delay isn't due to some critical problem, pretend it is. For some people, losing an email in their BlackBerry is a critical breach of security.
- Technically, the table should be untouched before the guest arrives, because it has been laid in the guest's honor, but there are times and ways to make allowances for everyone's health and well-being. (Personally, Miss Conduct has a soft spot for anyone who cannot resist a good breadstick.)
- If a guest's order arrives before yours, urge the guest to eat before the meal spoils. (Warm sushi is a health risk.) If the host's order arrives first, the smart host waits until everyone is served before indulging. The "lifting of the fork" by the most senior lady or guest in the party is the traditional signal to begin.
- Naturally, whoever issued the invitation pays for the meal. This means you, host. Ditto the privilege of the seat with the view -- always favor your guest, or risk appearing as someone who cares too much about petty things, such as BlackBerrys and breadsticks.
Now a word on those forks, for both hosts and guests. As far as
table settings are concerned, European table manners are more or less uniform (the fork goes in the left hand and stays there, unless you're eating soup), but there are also any number of Asian customs and African standards, as well as our own much-vilified American cut-with-the-fork-in-left-hand-then-switch-to-the-right maneuver.
Each one of these customs is polite and valid within its context, so if your tablemate uses unfamiliar table manners, you may have to pretend he or she is from another continent (or planet) to finish your own meal with ease. Ignore the chipotle mayonnaise on her fingertips, unless they are poised to grab the arm of your silk suit -- and then please offer one of those napkins and a smile, not a lecture.
On the other hand, if a host uses unfamiliar manners, a wise guest will gamely follow suit to whatever extent he and his silk suit can stand it. Again, the more napkins you have on hand, the better (and of course, never blow your nose in one at the table).
This brings Miss Conduct to the role of the excellent guest. Luckily, that role is easy. Follow the equivalent for each of the host's duties: Be prompt, patient, prepared and poised. Keep the talk light and neutral until your host turns the conversation toward business, then be sure to give plenty of thanks after the meal.
Why go to all this trouble? As the recent billion-dollar
GMAC repayment to Cerebrus shows, it pays to be gracious and take care of all the small details, because that lets you focus on what's important: the big picture.
Business meals are about bonding, but they're also fact-finding missions, bargaining sessions and message exchanges. Setting your tablemate at ease is important, because you can make your best moves when they've let their guard down. Or so Miss Conduct has read.
Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at
AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.