The impression we make at the dining table can affect the way others see us. It even can affect our career if we’re treating a client to dinner, having a lunch interview with a potential employer or sharing a bite to eat with the boss.
The table manners your mother might have drilled into you as a child—such as elbows off the table and don’t talk with your mouth full—are just a start. Here are 11 more mistakes to avoid…
WHAT NOT TO ORDER
Some meal mistakes occur before the food even arrives…
Ordering food that’s challenging to eat. Order spaghetti in tomato sauce, and a single splatter could make you look like a slob. Order crab legs, and your attention might be focused on cracking them open, rather than on the person you hope to impress. Instead, order a simple, easy-to-eat meal that you have eaten before and that always agrees with your stomach.
Failing to mirror your guest’s order. If your dining companion orders an appetizer, you should order an appetizer. If he/she orders dessert, you should order dessert. Otherwise, there will be an awkward time when one of you is eating and the other is not. Of course, you don’t have to eat all of the food if you prefer not to.
Placing a complex order. Ordering off the menu or saying things such as “hold this” or “put that on the side” can make you seem difficult to please, not the sort of person whom others want to deal with.
HOW NOT TO EAT
Tucking your napkin into your shirt collar isn’t the only potential faux pas when the food arrives…
Eating much faster or slower than your dining companions. Matching your tablemates’ eating pace will make them feel more comfortable and in tune with you. It also avoids any awkward stretches when some are eating but others are not.
Eating someone else’s bread. Some people accidentally take their neighbor’s bread or water when seated around a round table. Just recall automaker BMW to keep it straight—your Bread is to your left, your Meal in the middle, your Water to your right.
Saying, “Take this back.” When the meeting is more important than the meal itself, you’re better off eating poorly prepared food than saying, “Take this back.” Sending food back means that your guest will have food while you don’t, which throws off the timing of the meal. It also risks making you look picky and difficult (even if your complaint is legitimate). Send food back during important meetings only if it is completely inedible.
Potential missteps if you requested the meeting at a restaurant or are eating with your client, which makes you the host…
Choosing an inappropriate restaurant. If you’re the host, it isn’t just the restaurant’s fault if your guest doesn’t enjoy the meal—it’s your fault for choosing that restaurant. If possible, select a place where you have dined previously so that you can be certain that it is appropriate.
Provide guests with a specific reason why you selected this particular restaurant for them. This shows that you put some thought into the meeting, which sends the message that you consider your dining companions important.
Example: Send your dining companion’s assistant an e-mail prior to the meal asking about his food restrictions or preferences. Then when your guest arrives, say, “I know you like steak, and this place has the best steak in town.”
Letting guests handle their own problems. It’s your responsibility as host to look after your guests. If a guest is served the wrong meal or a meal that clearly is not properly prepared, say, “Let’s have that taken care of,” and—unless your guest declines your assistance—call over the waiter and politely explain what the problem is. If the guest’s meal must be returned to the kitchen, stop eating your meal until the guest’s food returns.
Potential mistakes if you’re not the host…
Ordering one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. Your host might consider this taking unfair advantage. It’s acceptable only if the host himself orders a high-end item or specifically recommends one.
Being unprepared for light conversation. Even if the purpose of the meal is to discuss an important topic, there’s likely to be small talk, too. Flip through a newspaper before the meal so that you’re ready to discuss current events…check whether there’s anything new going on in your dining partner’s company or sector…and double-check the names of his/her spouse and kids.