How proper etiquette can help avoid a business lunch disaster

It was like a date from hell – only in business lunch format.

Camilita Nuttall tells the story about the time she and a new contact decided to meet in person. He slid in a half-hour late with no explanation. To add insult, he ordered the most expensive menu item and said she was expected to foot the bill.

“It was the worst,” noted the motivational speaker, lecturer, and sales coach. Do enough business lunches, and there will be times you’ll leave with a bad taste in your mouth. Not just from the food, though — but from the manners of your table-mate.

From breaches in etiquette to mismanaged manners, from imbibing excess liquor to egregious errors in social decorum, the details really can make or break a business deal, say experts.

Some tips are obvious (no sexually suggestive remarks or gestures, or being short with the waiter); some not so obvious, including the nuances of who is responsible for looking after the cheque.

“Who is paying, or should pay for lunch, is one of the trickiest things never discussed,” states Nuttall.

To avoid potential embarrassment, experience has taught her to contact the client’s company to inquire about protocol, when possible.

The person who has travelled the farthest, should be treated to lunch, she insists.

William Hanson, British etiquette coach, has a simple rule: “Whoever extended the invitation and has made the reservation, pays.”

A recurring controversial subject also tends to be: to drink, or not to drink?  “Some see it as unprofessional to drink when you are returning to work after the lunch,” notes Hanson.

Etiquette and manners expert Jo Bryant says “alcohol is best avoided” as the social atmosphere of a restaurant “can easily let us forget that the lunch is for business purposes… it is important to stay sharp and maintain your professional gloss.”

Meanwhile, London-based business coach, author, lecturer, and sales trainer Phil Jones suggests a middle ground.

“Allow the other person to take the lead. Sometimes it’s a loosening of the collar, it’s a chance to get to some deeper issues, to speak a bit freer. Reverse side of drinking at lunchtime: it can result in people shooting their mouth off.”

Hanson also cautions on food choices.

Messy foods such as “spaghetti or foods with sloppy sauces” should be avoided, “or anything that requires a lot of effort to eat,” such as fish. “During a business luncheon I want to concentrate on my fellow diner, not battling with the meal.”

Stay away from “foods with excess garlic, shells, or those that require fingers.”

As sure as it is key to be mindful of what goes in one’s mouth, it is equally critical to consider what is coming out.

Nuttall says there should be “no-fly” discussions: “absolutely no sex, politics, religion, bad talking other people or companies, negatives about your own company or theirs.”

In one particular off-putting meeting, Jones found himself getting an earful of another’s personal marriage issues.

And for those who can’t put down a smartphone, a business lunch is one of the few times when you definitely should. Doing otherwise may send the unintended signal that you have lost interest in the conversation and cause offence.

Wherever the meeting, and whatever the topic, Hanson strongly advises to be mindful of the other person’s time. “The worst are where they drag on and your host thinks you don’t have anywhere else to be.”

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