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Closing the Deal over Dinner

Business dinners are more than just talking shop: How you handle a business dinner can make or break a deal.

International business etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer offers the following advice to help you present both yourself and your company in the best possible light:

Invitations – The person extending the invitation is the host and is responsible for the bill. When receiving or extending invitations, pay attention to special dietary needs. The host may ask about food allergies or sensitivities, kosher, gluten-free, etc. Be sure to reply within 24 hours with any dietary restrictions.

Guest Duties – Observe the host for cues. For example: place your napkin in your lap after the host; the host does so first to signal the start of the meal. When excusing yourself between courses, the napkin is placed on the chair seat, soiled side down. At meal’s end, place your loosely folded napkin on the left of your plate after the host does. Don’t refold it.

Silverware and Service Signals – Once silverware is used, including handles, it doesn’t touch the table again. Rest forks, knives and spoons on the side of your plate. Between bites, place your fork, with tines up, near the top of your plate. To signal that you’re finished, place your fork and knife across the center of the plate at the 5 o’clock position. Close your menu to indicate you’re ready to order. If you are browsing an open menu, the server has the impression you aren’t ready. 

What should you order? Ask the person who invited you (host/hostess) for suggestions on the menu. Listen carefully because they will provide a top and bottom price range based on the entrées they recommend. Then select a moderately priced item or one of the dishes they recommend.

To drink or not to drink? If the host orders alcohol, and you don’t wish to drink, you simply order the beverage of your preference without an explanation. “I’ll have an iced tea with lemon please” or “Diet Coke please” and continue to browse the menu. You are under no obligation to consume alcohol.

Connections and Conversation – It’s the host’s job to keep conversation going during the meal and guests must contribute with courtesy. Just don’t monopolize the conversation; rather, ask questions and express interest. Light topics include books, travel, vacation, movies, and pets; avoid politics, sex and religion. If you need to talk to the server, don’t interrupt the flow of the conversation. Catch the eye of the server if you need assistance, or slightly raise your hand. If they are busy, softly call their name or “server?”

Tipping – The host is the person who extended the invitation, and they are responsible for paying the bill. Consider these U.S. tipping guidelines: bartender – 10-20 percent of bar bill; valet – $2-5; coat check – $1 per coat; server – 15-20 percent of bill or 25 percent for extraordinary service; sommelier – 15 percent of wine bill. The tip should reflect the total price of the bill before any coupons, discounts or gift certificates.