Business people learn to mind their manners

You’re having a business lunch with your most important client. You take a bite of food and … UGH! You’re munching on a mouth full of gristle that you need to spit out. So do you reach for the napkin to secretly discard the food? Don’t you dare, says etiquette expert Sonia Jacobson.

“If it goes in with the fork, it comes out with the fork,” Jacobson said. And you put it right back on the plate.

That got quite a few cringes, squirms and giggles from the 30 people getting a business dinner etiquette lesson at The Bankers Club in Miami.

“It’s only food ? what’s the big deal?” she said. “And if it goes in with the fingers, it comes out with the fingers” ? like when you need to discard an olive pit.

It should be noted that these folks in attendance were no heathens ? the room was filled with professionals dressed to the nines: top executives, students, retirees. But most everyone learned a few things ? like Jamie Elias, partner at private equity firm Trivest Partners, who didn’t realize he was eating backward all his life.

The proper international way to eat ? if you are right handed ? is to keep your knife in your right hand and your fork in your left.

Elias cuts left handed and kept the fork in his right. Although it looks fine to the untrained eye and it was comfortable for him, Jacobson said he actually was doing it wrong.

Americans usually juggle silverware between hands throughout a meal, such as cutting with the right and then picking up the fork with the same hand. It’s not necessarily bad manners, Jacobson told the crowd, but it just won’t impress a foreign client.

At the same table was Elias’ sister, real estate agent Tara Elias Schuchts, who was doing pretty good using a fork in her left hand during her meal ? except for handling the rice, which she only managed to rangle up a few grains at a time using her left hand.

“You could lose weight trying to get this rice up,” Schuchts said while practicing.

The basic rules haven’t changed much throughout the years since the first written set of table manners in the year 1290. But Jacobson, a corporate image consultant, says she is busier than ever teaching business manners, whether it’s a private lesson at a law firm or lecturing high school students through her non-profit agencies Suited for Success and Dress for Success Miami.

“It’s amazing how a lot of students will get out of law school and they don’t know how to eat properly,” Jacobson said. “It should be common sense.” Etiquette consultant Colin P. D’Arcy, president of ImageMentor, said he’s noticing lots of young people entering the workforce just were never taught business etiquette ? perhaps because parents these days “don’t have the time.” He actually corrected this reporter’s manners while networking with a drink: You should always hold it in your left hand, so you don’t have a cold, wet hand when shaking with your right.

But it’s not just a lack of manners ? it’s not always realizing the habits of other cultures. Take a client from Spain out for an afternoon bite to eat, and “lunch could be three hours and two bottles of wine,” Jacobson said.

So it’s important for the guest to order first ? and you order the same number of courses. But if the servings are huge, don’t feel like you have to finish every course.

Unless it was clearly stated that it is a working lunch and you know the guest, don’t discuss business until after the main course is finished. In the meantime, make small talk, such as asking the guest about their job.

One of the biggest issues for Jacobson these days is the faux pas of cellphones at the table.

“You keep that phone out of sight,” she said. And if it is an emergency, “you must excuse yourself at the table and take it outside.” But fingers, silverware and cellphones aside, the topic that got the most talk was how to handle the bill.

You can avoid an awkward situation by choosing your words carefully when inviting someone out. A host should say “Would you like to join us for dinner?” or “Be our guest” or “I’d like to invite you to lunch” to make it clear that you are treating them to a meal. If you want to split the bill, use a more casual phrase like “Let’s get together for lunch.” Accidents happen, and there’s a proper way to handle that, too. Drop a napkin or silverware on the floor, and you better let it go. Jacobson insisted you should never reach to pick it up ? that’s the job of the wait staff.

Simply get the attention of the wait staff and they should bring you a fresh item.

And what if you spill red wine all over your client’s white suit? Neither party should make a big fuss. The clumsy one should offer to pay for the dry cleaning, and if your outfit is ruined, don’t mention it again during the meal.

The bottom line is, if something awkward happens ? like a guest drinking the water from a finger bowl or a big client has crumbs on their face ? more often than not it’s best to not mention anything.

“The last thing you want to do is embarrass a guest at a dinner table,” Jacobson said.

Don’t make these common business etiquette mistakes!
? If you’re networking with a drink in your hand, always hold the drink in your left hand the whole time. You must keep the right hand free for shaking, and you don’t want to offer a hand that’s cold and wet from a glass.

? Hold a glass of red wine by the base of the bowl. A glass of white wine should be held by the stem of the glass, since it is chilled and you don’t want to warm it with your hand.

? The guest should get the best seat at the table, which is the seat that faces the room ? not the wall.

? Let your guest order first. When it is your turn, order the same number of courses as they have.

? Keep that phone off the table. If you know you will be getting an important phone call during the meal, let your guest know before the meal starts, and excuse yourself from the table to take the call.

? Once you start eating, your utensil should never touch the table again ? that means don’t prop up a used knife or fork half on the table and half on the plate. It should rest completely on the plate.

? If there’s a tablecloth and silverware on the table, don’t eat with your fingers. But you can use your fingers to break off a piece of bread. (But asparagus may be eaten with your fingers as long as it is not in a sauce!)

? The only time it’s acceptable to pick up a bowl and drink your soup is if it is a clear broth soup. If there’s a noodle in it, use a spoon.

? Never cut spaghetti with a knife. You must twirl it on your fork. (It’s OK to use a spoon to help you twirl.)

? You CAN put your elbows on the table ? as long as it’s before or after a meal.

? Women: Don’t prop your head up with your hands while eating. Men: Don’t throw your tie over your shoulder or tuck your napkin in your pants.

? If a napkin or piece of silverware is dropped, let it go! Get the attention of the wait staff to let them know what you dropped so they can replace it. (If it is at a friend’s house, pick it up ? chances are they don’t have maids to pick up after you.)

? Never pick your teeth with a toothpick (or fingernails) at the table. And ladies should never apply makeup at the table.

? If you have to sneeze suddenly, use your napkin to cover your nose and sneeze away from the table. If you have to blow your nose, excuse yourself from the table.

? Don’t sop up the sauce on your plate with a piece of bread.

? To signal to a waiter that you are done with your plate, place the knife and fork parallel on the plate at the 4 o’clock position.

? No doggie bags at a business meal.

? Never share food at a business meal.

? Never stay beyond the allocated time for a networking event.

SOURCE: Sonia Jacobson

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.