A Lesson in Business Etiquette

As part of Villanova’s Summer Business Institute program, students participate in a series of professional development events.

Tonight was the first such event; a dinner for all students, faculty, and staff, that also featured a presentation on proper business etiquette when out to dinner.

The featured speaker was Laura Katen, who has her own consulting firm which focuses on providing “business soft skills training”.

In my 30 years at Villanova I’ve gone to a lot of presentations, and today’s presentation would rank in the top three of all time. My only regret is that I didn’t learn this information 40 years ago, so I am thrilled that our students are learning these soft skills now.

I’ve always been a believer in the importance of soft skills (such as kindness, empathy, presentation skills, getting along with people, etc.), so it was helpful having the importance of such skills reinforced by someone who specializes in helping people and firms to build such skills.

Tonight’s presentation focused specifically on the do’s and don’ts associated with a business dinner.

The event began with a brief presentation by Ms. Katen about the value of knowing how to behave at such an event, and then we started eating our salad. In addition, at each table there were a series of true/false questions that we were asked to work through during our salad. The correct response to some of the questions surprised me.

For example,

If you arrive to the restaurant before the host, you should take a walk around the block and come back.

I didn’t see what the problem was with being there early, but apparently doing so could upset the host by making him think he was late for the appointment. Now there are exceptions, such as it’s OK to arrive before the host if it is just a couple of minutes before the scheduled time or if the host is running late.

After we finished our salad, Ms. Katen then went over the correct responses for each of the questions, and by the time we were finished that, our entree had arrived. For this part of the meal, each table had been given an index card with a question on it which we were to discuss during dinner. Our table’s question was “What are some foods to avoid during such a dinner?” (answers included, among others, spaghetti, shellfish, burgers, broccoli, and spinach)

When dinner was over Ms. Kalen went through the various index cards that each table had, as well as answered any questions anyone might have. During this part of the program I also learned an easy way to remember what side your bread is on versus your drink. Ms. Katen gave us the acronym BMW, which stands for, from left to right, Bread, Meal, Water/Wine.

Here were some other tidbits:

  • anything inedible, such as taking the wrapping off of a straw, should be placed under the lip of the bread plate
  • anything edible that you need to take out of your mouth (olive pit, gristle) should be placed on your main dinner plate and then covered with food
  • you should always leave a little bit of food on your plate
  • follow your host’s lead; if she orders an appetizer, you order an appetizer; if she orders dessert, you order dessert (even if you are full); eat at the pace of your host; if you are asked to order first, and you just order an entree but the host orders an appetizer and an entree, when everyone is finished ordering tell the server that the appetizer sounds like a good idea, and you would like to order one; if the reverse happens, you order an appetizer but no one else does, let the server know that you changed your mind and that you do no need an appetizer
  • how to leave your fork and knife on the plate if you are not yet finished versus how to place them when you are finished
  • never ask for a doggie bag
  • take the lemon wedge off the glass of water and place it on your bread plate before drinking the water
  • if someone asks you to pass the salt, you also include the pepper
  • leave your napkin on your chair if you have to excuse yourself during the meal, and then on the left side of your plate when you are finished

While we were learning all of these behaviors, our dinner plates were cleared off and we were then served dessert.

Ms. Katen then offered some tips on other soft skills, such as the proper way to shake hands. She even volunteered to shake hands after dinner with anyone who wanted to so that she could let you know if your handshake passed muster.

I took advantage of such an opportunity and so after dinner I went over to where Ms. Katen was standing and introduced myself. I guess the handshake was OK, since she did not say otherwise, but then a couple of minutes into our conversation I noticed that I was still holding my napkin in my left hand. I have no idea why (it certainly was never one of the options discussed in terms of what to do with our napkins), but I quickly fessed up to my faux pas. Fortunately, Ms. Katen was enough of a professional to act as if she hadn’t even noticed, even though it was a pretty big blue cloth napkin.

As noted earlier, I thought this was a wonderful hands-on learning experience, and I think the students will benefit greatly from learning such skills at this stage of their lives.

I also learned a lot, but apparently I have to remember to actually use what I’ve learned (put the napkin down, put the napkin down, put the napkin down…)

*Table setting image courtesy of Cal State University Dominguez Hills Career Center

P.S. Any mistakes about business etiquette noted above are mine – I was trying to write down everything I was learning, so there is the chance I got one or two of the things wrong.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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