The word on the street is that some wildly vast percentage of business is actually conducted on the golf course, with 55% of those surveyed (not by me, but officially) claiming that taking up golf has proved helpful in their corporate careers. Even Donald Trump agrees, likening the green to a second office. Well, if the green is the number one spot (outside of the boardroom, that is) where deals are done, I posit that the dining table must come in at a close second. Just ask another Donald- Draper that is, of Mad Men fame. It seems as though all that those guys did was schmooze clients over lunches and dinners.
Perhaps we’re not so profligate with our expense accounts in today’s business climate but whether it’s a quick vendor lunch, or a five course dinner with a VIP client, business meals are still very much an important part of the business world. All the more reason to polish up on the art of the “meal.”
1) Cast a wide net. It would be perfection itself to pick a restaurant in line with your client’s food preferences, but in reality that’s not always possible- at least not without coming across as a bit of a stalker. At the very least, accidentally taking a client who happens to have a shellfish allergy to a seafood restaurant, or a vegetarian to a steakhouse could be awkward. While Don Draper didn’t have to contend with diet restrictions or food allergies (who didn’t like a good steak in the late 50s?) it’s a reality in post- Mad Men America. Go for variety.
2) Choose wisely. As the point of a business meal is principally discussion, a quiet restaurant is a better choice than the trendy new place with the loud music. Another point: focus on a restaurant with good service. A bad dining experience due to poor service (or barely edible food, or bad whatever) reflects poorly on the host.
3) Take care of the bill before it arrives at the table. Arrive at the restaurant early and request from the maître d’ or manager that the check not be brought to the table. As the meal comes to a close, excuse yourself as if to use the restroom and pay the bill. So smooth. It also precludes any possible awkwardness on your guest’s part.
3) Have a bite to eat before you arrive. Remember that a business meal is more about building a relationship with your client than the food (no matter how good.) It’s also bad form for your guest to feel upstaged by the appetizer because you skipped lunch.
4) Start the meal with casual small talk, shifting the focus to the point of the meeting as the meal progresses. While the whole point may be to strategize the upcoming contract or update them on the newest air handling unit, you want to put your guest at ease. Then, before dessert or coffee arrive, shift the conversation back to a more relaxed topic so that you end the meal on a positive, comfortable note.
5) Avoid messy or fussy foods. Remember the Julia Roberts escargot scene in Pretty Woman? Right. Ditto on sloppy Joes, ribs, and oversized sandwiches. It’s hard to look professional when you have red sauce all over your chin.
6) Banish the cell phone. Seriously. Turn it off and put it away. It’s distracting (and terribly bad form) to keep checking your text messages and email while meeting with another human being. “But what if someone’s trying to reach me?” Yes, someone is trying to reach you- the person sitting across the table from you in real time. Unless there’s a serious family illness or you happen to also be an on-call obstetrician (which would probably give you a great leg up in the next Dos Equis commercial) give the person you’re with your undivided attention. In today’s world with a million distractions, undivided attention is the highest form of flattery.
7) If you leave the table momentarily, the napkin goes on your seat, not the table.
8) Pace yourself so that you don’t finish before your dining companions. If you do, don’t allow the waiter to clear your plate before everyone else finishes. That way, no one will feel rushed. It may seem like a ridiculously small thing, but making a good impression is often all about the details.
9) Respect your dining companion’s time and schedules and don’t order coffee or dessert unless they do.
10) And here’s one specifically for the gentlemen: channel Don Draper ( Mr. Darcy, 007, or pretty much any terribly chic, polished man) and embrace the small courtesies. Keep your jacket on during dinner, open doors (allowing others to walk through first), pull out chairs for women in your dining party (if the waiter doesn’t), stand whenever a woman leaves or returns to the table -the latter being a most glamorous and elegant gesture. It only feels awkward because so many men don’t bother anymore. As a woman, I can’t underscore enough how impressive it is (even in a plutonic, business setting.) Major brownie points, guys.
So that’s a pretty hefty list- why make the effort when contemporary culture is so casual? As they say, “Good manners never go out of style.” Furthermore, against the backdrop of popular culture (with its ubiquitous Twitter feuds, and heated Facebook “discussions”), the practice of good manners is even more impressive and memorable. Simply put– precisely because so many people don’t bother with them, manners are a good thing to master. After all, a little polish goes a long way.
Just ask Don.