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Sticky Situation: Dining Etiquette, and Why You Should Not Have a Drink

When out for a business meal, many situations come up: "What if I have food allergies or I am on a restricted diet?", "What should I talk about?", "What are appropriate finger foods?", "Do I have to have a drink?" and "May I excuse myself to go smoke?" Here's how to deal with each.
Stuart Mullenberg/Imbibe

Now that you know Dining Etiquette 101, let's explore five "sticky situations" that may be encountered during a contemporary business luncheon.

1. Sticky situation: What if I have food allergies or I am on a restricted diet?

These days, more and more conference venues, caterers and meeting organizers recognize that guests may have allergies, restrictions or personal food choices. To respect these, attendees may be surveyed prior to the function. When asked, simply signal your intolerance or preference accordingly.

On the day of the meal, expect to be identified by a colour-coded piece of paper, sticky dot or other indicator. In other instances, you will be assigned a seat so your special meal may be served to you. Assigned seating is an important reason, apart from honouring attendees, that prearranged seating should be respected.

When attending a smaller function, especially if you are the only invitee, politely inform your host of your sensitivity. It could sound something like this: "Thank you, I am happy to accept your invitation but I must inform you that I have a severe allergy to shellfish." This way your host will select a "safe" restaurant.

Should you have made a life food choice or you shy away from certain food categories, for religious reasons or other, simply choose a menu option that will make you comfortable while following your host's lead. For example, if your host has an appetizer and a main course, choose two courses and not one nor three.

Know that it is always appropriate to ask the wait staff for a list of ingredients.

2. Sticky situation: What should I talk about?

As discussed in my "How do I schmooze?" blog, business conversation is something you should prepare ahead of time. We all know the taboo conversation topics: politics, religion and sex. Avoid them. Don't go there. At the table, there are also topics that should be avoided and they form the acronym D.I.N.E.: Disgusting, Insulting, Negative and too Emotional. You should also stay clear of offensive language and slang expressions.

A big no-no in all business situations is gossip. Never gossip. When in the presence of others that gossip, simply do the action word embedded in gossip: go!

Also, as a professional discussing business in a public setting, always be aware that the other restaurant patrons may overhear your conversation. Be careful of the use of your clients' and colleagues' full names.

Most importantly listen, don't interrupt or argue. Show interest in what others are saying by asking open ended questions.

3. Sticky situation: What are appropriate finger foods?

When in doubt about whether to use your fingers, observe your host and follow his lead.

Generally speaking; fried chicken, crispy bacon, sandwiches, french fries that accompany a sandwich, pizza and even lobster when served in a rustic setting are all acceptable finger foods.

When you are a guest at a business luncheon set yourself up for success. Choose foods that you are comfortable with and know how to eat. By all means, if your host invites you to eat something new and you are game, go for it. Experiment and do ask for the appropriate way of eating it.

4. Sticky situation: Do I have to have a drink?

No, drinking alcohol is a personal choice and no one needs to know why. When offered a drink the appropriate response would simply be: "No, thank you." If the other party insists, a simple: "I have a little bit of a headache, so I prefer not to, thank you," will do.

If you do choose to drink, wait for your host's clue as to whether or not you should order a drink. Know your limit, which in my personal professional opinion, should be one drink in a business setting.

As a new graduate interviewing while dining, it may be best for you to avoid alcohol to showcase your resume successfully.

5. Sticky situation: May I excuse myself to go smoke?

Anytime a business professional excuses himself from the table, he misses out on the business at hand. For that reason, avoid absences from the meal. If you must, choose a strategic time.

As a smoker, be aware that the scent from the cigarette may irritate other diners. In other words, leaving the table to go for a smoke break during a dining interview may leave a negative first impression which you may not be able to turn around.

While on the topic of first impressions, do arrive on time. Tardiness will most likely create a negative first impression before the interview has even started. Also, do turn off your cellphone. An interview is all about face time, not screen time.

Once again good luck with your interviews and remember to send a thank-you note to be positively remembered.

Have a Sticky Situation yourself? Write to and Julie will reply promptly.

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