The primary purpose of a business meal is to build rapport.

Eating comes second.

Real estate agents have numerous opportunities to enjoy meals with clients, colleagues, and friends in many environments. Options range from a simple coffee and/or business lunch to formal dinner affair. It is not just about which fork to use, or which water goblet is yours, but also how to handle yourself with class and finesse. Whether you are host or guest, your table manners should convey to your dining partners that you are always in control.

If you frequent a venue, build a relationship with the coffee barista or restaurant. It starts here! Your communication with the staff is a direct reflection on your personality. This starts with being respectful to the staff. Are you easy to work with, or judgmental and critical? The staff is there to make sure your dining needs are met, and your meal meeting is successful. Things happen. If there is an issue, take care of it privately with the restaurant manager. This demonstrates sensitivity and finesse.

Fast-food, food trucks, and buffet-type restaurants, along with gourmet coffee cafes, present a more casual, less-structured, less expensive dining experience. However, they can create the pressure of having to make a fast decision in a short period of time. Setting the tone of a hurried meeting. Restaurants with table service are more structured with their service allowing a more relaxed environment. Formal dining and banquets are more celebratory.

Coffee Shops: Find a table away from the sound of grinding coffee beans. Although you are not required to order something, you should! It shows respect for the establishment and makes guests more comfortable. No one likes to be the only one enjoying their beverage! The wi-fi network is very appealing; however, the table is not your office!  Be respectful of the Baristas’ perks.

Food Courts and Food Trucks: Quick food eateries range from food courts to cafeteria-style buffets to food trucks. Examine the menu before getting in line. Try to get your guest’s food preference ahead of time so that you can guide them appropriately. Clear your table after eating, so it is ready for the next person. This is a courtesy and is noticed.

Lunch Tips: Planning a business lunch is probably the most persuasive and telling form of conducting a meal meeting. It can serve as an assessment tool, demonstrating both your organizational and people skills. You will be ordering from the menu, so understanding food descriptions and dietary restrictions is vital. Who pays the check? The check should be handled discreetly! Make this arrangement with the restaurant beforehand, so they know who gets the check and how it will be paid. 

Formal Affair: Formal dining typically centers around a pre-planned menu and can involve wine/food pairings. This means that the table will be preset and represent the entire meal’s need for utensil, plates, and glassware.  It’s critical that you know how to read a table map because it tells you what to expect when. Typically, this meal is by reservation only (prepaid), so there is no need for a check. If there is a wine pairing, know that wine is paired with a specific dish and is correctly removed when that course has been completed.   

At a formal dinner gathering, I was seated at a round table of eight preset with empty wine glasses and a bottle of wine. After the captain poured the wine, I picked up the wineglass on the right side of my place setting and took a sip. The gentlemen on my right, who had arrived late, crossed his arms in front of this chest and leaned back in his chair during the speaker’s presentation. I could feel his glare; he appeared very annoyed.

After the speaker finished, he could no longer contain himself and announced that I was drinking from “his” wine glass! Being careful not to become defensive, I quickly apologized. As it turned out, a woman sitting directly across from us had picked up the wineglass on her left instead of her right, which caused a domino effect; the person on his right had taken his wineglass. (Beverage glasses are on your right.)

He did not catch the misstep because he arrived late. However, another gentleman, politely responded that I had picked up the correct wineglass. This created another awkward moment. I did my best to inject humor into the situation to avoid causing further embarrassment. I discreetly signaled the server. The server immediately recognized the misstep and retrieved the empty wine glass and poured his wine. We moved on to the next topic of conversation.

It was an innocent mistake. One can do all the right things and still have something fall amiss because of someone else’s unintentional misstep. Knowing dining etiquette and protocol will prevent these awkward moments from occurring.

Overall Dining Tips

  • Before you are seated, put your cell phone on vibrate or better yet, turn it off and put it away! DO NOT put your cell phone on the table. The individuals at your table are your VIPs! If you need your cell phone for information, make sure everyone knows how it is being used.
  • If you are the guest, follow the lead of your host. Do not pick up your napkin or disturb the table arrangement until he or she does and offers the welcome to everyone. 
  • Lay the napkin on your lap; do not leave it unused on the table. Blot your lips before taking a sip of your beverage. t
  • Posture is important. Sit up straight; keep knees (and personal items) under the table. DO NOT rest on your forearm while eating. It makes you look lazy. 
  • Follow the table map: beverages, knives, and spoons are on the right; side dishes and forks are on the left. Use utensils from the outside in. Your dessert utensils are typically at the top of the plate or brought with dessert.
  • Order what can be easily eaten. Avoid challenging foods like spaghetti, ribs, and large sandwiches if you are trying to make an impression. 
  • If you are not sure what to order, ask for a recommendation. A good rule of thumb is to order a mid-priced item and eat at least 80 percent of what you ordered to show you enjoyed the meal.
  • Never return a used utensil to the tablecloth. Once used, your utensils should always remain on the plate.
  • Make sure everyone is participating in the table conversation, and appropriate topics are discussed. Focus on building the relationship by discussing commonalities, special interests, or housing goals. This demonstrates leadership.
  • Thank your host for the meal and for the conversation (or opportunity). Record notes of your conversation for future reference when you return to your office.

There are more tips; however, the above serves as your dining decorum foundation.

If you are dealing with domestic and international clients, your knowledge and comfort level with the five styles of eating and utensil usage are critical: (1) American Style, (2) Continental-British Style, (3) Continental-European Style, (4) Asian-Chopstick Style (5) Middle-Eastern. They all have a unique way of handling food (with or without utensils), a protocol for the order in which food is served, and time-honored rituals for serving (e.g., tea service) that should be respected.

Whatever the situation or venue, this is an opportunity to assess your personality on a more social level, evaluate your communication skills, and observe your level of sophistication throughout the meal. Most importantly, displaying the proper use of etiquette, protocol, and manners is for every facet of your life. Want to learn more? “Dining Strategies for Building and Sustaining Business Relationships” gives you everything you should know plus extras.