Navigating a professional lunch
Meeting over lunch sounds more pleasant that sitting in a stark boardroom with coffee and a few biscuits. However, navigating your way through business objectives while maintaining dining etiquette can be a challenge.
There’s unlikely to be a formal agenda, but whether you’re the host or the invitee, you do need to be clear about the outcomes you’re hoping to achieve. This will depend on your particular role and where you work. It may be that you’re meeting a long-standing client for informal feedback and to gain insight into future opportunities. Perhaps you’re pitching for work, or a new agency is pitching to you. Even if it’s a regular catch-up with a colleague or mentor, it’s still a good idea to plan what you’d like to discuss.
If you’re hosting with a senior colleague, they will likely steer the conversation. If you’re on your own, then you’ll have to take the lead. It’s not a good idea to launch straight into talking business – try to wait at least until the main course arrives. If you find small talk tricky, some research could help. If a colleague tells you your guest is a keen Arsenal fan, and you know enough about football to hold a conversation, that could work. However, delving into their social-media profiles for conversation topics is a little creepy. If in doubt, weather, holidays or local news (e.g. the new gym/restaurant opening nearby) are good openers. Politics and religion are best avoided. If possible, try to wrap up the business talk before pudding or coffee, to end the meeting on a lighter note.
If you’ve been tasked with setting up the lunch, don’t panic. Speak with colleagues and check restaurant-review websites. Shortlist two or three venues a convenient distance from your guest’s office and let them make the final choice.
Brush up on your dining etiquette – especially if it’s going to be a formal British affair. These rules may seem old-fashioned, but following them can make you feel and look more confident. Make sure you’re clear about which cutlery you need to use – a rule of thumb is to work from the outside in. Don’t hold your knife like a pen. Hold your fork in your left hand, tines (prongs) down and use your knife to push food onto the back of it. To remember which side plate and glasses are yours, think BMW - bread roll on the left, meal in the middle, wine (or water) on the right. Your napkin is for placing on your lap to protect your clothes and to dab your mouth at the end of your meal. Try to avoid resting your elbows on the table.
If you’re in a less formal restaurant, you won’t have to deal with so much cutlery and crockery. Other cuisines and cultures have their own traditions – in an Italian restaurant, for example, it’s acceptable to eat a bowl of pasta or risotto with a fork in your right hand.
Choose food that isn’t going to be difficult to eat. Battling to deconstruct a lobster or getting tangled in spaghetti isn’t a good idea. Soup is best avoided unless you are adept at scooping your spoon away from you and tipping it into your mouth without slurping. Check the menu online if possible and make your choices in advance.
Far more important than getting any of these technical details correct is to remember basic good manners and be aware of those you’re dining with. Don’t chew with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full. Avoid putting too much food in your mouth at once. This way, you can chew easily and continue a conversation once you have swallowed your food. If you tend to eat very quickly—as I do—slow down and take a pause every few mouthfuls. Don’t touch any shared foods such as meze or dim sum with anything that has been in your mouth—e.g your fork, chopsticks or bread you’ve already bitten. Try to eat quietly, slowly and calmly.
A glass of wine?
Long boozy lunches aren’t commonplace these days, but it’s good manners to offer those you’ve invited a glass of wine. Whether you’re the host or the guest, you should never feel obliged to drink. If the lunch is celebratory, the wine could start flowing. If you find it hard to say no or don’t want to appear to be snubbing generosity, then find a reason—you have to drive later or you have a session booked at the gym. If it is a ‘work do’ your colleagues may be over-indulging, but it’s better to be regarded as a bit too sensible than as the newbie who can’t hold their drink.