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By: Stayce Wagner

Not so long ago, I found myself reaching out to Stacye Wagner via e-mail to seek any etiquette pointers she was willing to send my way, as a seasoned paralegal preparing for a big and important business luncheon. While I can certainly hold my own while seated at a formal dining table cloaked in white, across from a V.I.P., navigating silverware with the best of ’em, as legal professionals, I believe we can and should work to expand upon and refine our current level of etiquette expertise.

Upon reading Stayce’s response, I felt like I had hit the “Paralegals Dining With The Best of ’em Lottery!” Wanna hear the really great news? So did you! The information Stayce shared with me was so fantastic, we decided to turn it into a TPS series! Lesson number one begins today.  

Most Americans agree that our table manners are not what they used to be.  We are simply out of practice – who has time for Sunday supper with the family anymore? And regularly eating meals standing at kitchen counters and in cars hasn’t helped matters.

Ironically, as our dining skills continue to wane, business dining is becoming a fact of life as more and more job interviews and meetings are conducted over meals.  What does this mean for you?  This means that dining etiquette is now officially a business skill that when done well can enhance your career and when done poorly, can potentially derail your opportunities.  Just ask the poor guy who ate his dinner salad with his fingers. (True story.)

So with this in mind, here is a list of the top 10 business dining etiquette questions that I am asked, and the answers.

1. Who pays? 

The person who does the inviting should pay for the meal, including the tip.  But, never be caught without the means to pay for your share or even the entire meal, just in case.

2. Which bread plate is mine?

Your bread plate is on the left.  However, don’t make a fuss if someone uses yours, just use your plate.  Also, don’t butter your entire piece of bread at once.  Instead, break off a bite-sized piece and butter it on the plate, not in the air.

3. Which glass is mine?

Your beverages are on the right. If someone uses your glass by mistake, discreetly ask the server to replace it.

4. Which fork do I use?

If your place setting has more than one fork, begin with the one farthest to the left of your plate, which is typically your salad fork. The fork that is placed on the right is to be used for oysters.  A fork placed above your plate is the dessert fork.

5. Where should I put my purse?

You should put your purse on the floor next to your feet tucked away so that servers will not trip over it.  Don’t hang it on the back of your chair – even in upscale restaurants this is not a good idea.  Never put your purse on the table.  And please don’t bring your own purse hook!

6. Is it okay to use my smartphone at the table?

No. Your phone should be on silent or off and put away.  Never put your cellphone on the table. Texting under the table or on your lap is also not allowed.

7. When should I start eating?

Generally, do not eat or drink before the host – unless you order a first course and your host does not.

8. Where do I put my utensils when I am not eating?

When you are not eating, your utensils should be on your plate. This will also prevent you from using your utensils as a conductor’s baton while you are talking. Never put used utensils on the table.

When you are finished eating, place the knife and fork in the 10:20 position on your plate.  The tips of the knife and fork are at ten o’clock and the handles are at four o’clock, with the tines of the fork facing up.  This position tells the server that you are finished eating.  See the picture below:

Finished Position

9. What should I order?

Order foods that are easy to eat that don’t require the use of your fingers. The key is to know yourself.  Avoid greens if you have teeth like mine that love displaying bits of lettuce and spinach. If you are not sure how to navigate spaghetti without splashing, go with another choice.

Order from the middle price range of the menu, but also consider your host’s lead.  If she says that the $60 steak is her favorite item on the menu and insists that your order it, by all means order it if you wish.   But, if she says she usually doesn’t eat lunch, then don’t order the six course tasting menu!

Take small bites so you don’t get caught with a mouthful of food when asked a question.  Also, avoid talking with your hand in front of your mouth to hide the food.

Decline dessert, but coffee after a business meal is fine.

Some additional points to remember: Do not show up famished – it is a business function. If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions review the menu online, choose a few items that appeal to you and call the restaurant in advance with any questions. (This tip may sound extreme, but it keeps your allergies or dietary restrictions from becoming an unwelcome topic of conversation.)

10. Should I order an alcoholic beverage?

Beg off drinking alcoholic beverages – you want to stay sharp.  But, never turn a glass upside down to signal that you don’t intend to use it. The server will remove it from the table once he knows that it will not be used.

Bon appétit!

American Place Setting

Stayce Wagner is the founder of Spencer Crane Etiquette, LLC, located in Los Angeles, California. Ms. Wagner is a certified Corporate Etiquette and International Protocol Consultant trained by The Protocol School of Washington. Ms. Wagner uses proven training techniques, humor and engaging real-life examples to create a comprehensive, relevant and enjoyable learning experience for her clients. In addition to private consultations and speaking engagements, Ms. Wagner is a popular guest blogger and writer on the topics of social and business etiquette.

Be sure to check out her site at: http://www.spencercrane.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.


Be sure to park that silverware at 10:20, and reach to the right for that caffeinated beverage of sanity, TPS readers! Wishing you an absolutely fantastic week in the land of legal.

We’ll see you soon.