Bad manners can squelch the deal

It was difficult to pay attention to what my lunch partner was saying. Salad dressing was dribbling into his beard and bits of food were popping out of his mouth as he spoke. His voice seemed far away as my own mental voice said, "Maybe you should tell him he’s wearing most of his lunch on his face." I forced myself to refocus on what he was saying, "…So I was thinking we could become strategic partners and refer clients to each other..." Fat chance, I thought.

After that lunch, I started noticing dining behaviors in other settings. I wondered just how many job interviews, business deals and sales pitches had been lost due to bad form at the table.

"Manners are not being taught at home anymore," laments Giovinella Gontheir, a Chicago based consultant who gives lessons in etiquette to individuals and corporations. As a former ambassador in several countries and at the United Nations in New York, she has attended her share of formal dinners with strict protocol. She believes that casualness in the workplace, encouraged by a generation raised to be less formal, has eroded etiquette and civility in the workplace.

Other experts agree. Maureen Costello, Managing Director of ImageWorks, adds, "With the advent of the microwave and dual career families we’ve seen an increase in faster food preparation. With that has come the demise of formal eating and dining in America."

I certainly can’t claim to be the Manners Maven, but I’ve collected some pet peeves and faux pas from those in the know:

§      "Business entertainment has a purpose, so plan your agenda," urges Costello, who has offices in both Singapore and Chicago. "During cocktails or while hanging your coat, make pleasant small talk. By the time you eat the salad, begin discussing broad topics such as the industry or economy. By the meat course, get down to the meat of your discussion. By dessert, do a test close or recap what you agreed to. By coffee, lighten up again and bookend the meal with small talk and casual conversation."

§      Break bread with your hands and use the bread plate. "You should never butter the whole half of a roll and bite into it. Instead, break off small pieces as you want them," suggests Gonthier, who says this is the most common mistake she observes.

§      Silverware can be confusing. A general rule of thumb is to start on the outside and work your way in.

§      The host should always introduce guests to one another. Ideally, introduce guests before they sit down, so you can pave the way for cordial conversation.

§      "Think of a triangle when you are conversing at a table. Spend equal amounts of time talking to the persons on your left, right and across from you," encourages Costello. "If you only speak to one person, others near you will feel slighted."

§      Napkins are to be placed on your lap as soon as you are seated. Blot your mouth before you take a drink and occasionally during the meal. "Never use it as a handkerchief!" admonishes Gonthier. If you must leave the table, drape the napkin on the arm of the chair, to the left of the plate or on your seat." She adds, "In Europe the napkin is typically draped on the back of the chair.

§      Although we all know we shouldn’t chew with our mouths open or speak with food in our mouths, I see this rule broken all the time, don’t you?

§      Women should try to drink from the same place on their glass to avoid an abundance of lipstick marks.

§      After stirring your coffee, always take your spoon out of the cup and lay it to the right of the cup in the saucer.

§      If you have food caught in your teeth, leave the table. Never pick at your teeth, no matter how discreetly you manage this.

§      Bring the food up to your mouth, rather than lowering your head down to the plate or bowl.

§      During an important interview or meeting, avoid ordering anything that requires maneuvering, such as a poached pear or grapefruit. If you order pasta, choose penne (a small size) instead of linguini. If you order soup, choose a creamy blend over chunky soup that could splatter.

§      You will be judged by how you treat the waiter. "If a potential employer is condescending to a waiter, I would think twice about working for him or her," warns Costello.

§      If you must write something down, use a small card or notepad. You are supposed to enjoy the person seated in front of you, not be preoccupied with objects. Keep books, computers, and large tablets off the table.

The next time you find yourself doing business over a meal, you can feel confident that your manners aren’t getting in your way.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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