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Dining and Business Etiquette

Dining and Business Etiquette

By Mary Mahoney, Assistant Director, The UNIVERSITY of TENNESSEE Career Services 

Etiquette is defined as “the forms, manners, and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable or required in social relations, in a profession, or in official life.” Times change and this affects the guidelines of etiquette. Common sense will typically be your best guide, but it is helpful to have some general ideas regarding dining and business etiquette.


When meeting someone, rise if you are seated, smile, extend your hand and repeat the other person’s name in your greeting. A good handshake is important – it should be firm and held for 3-4 seconds. Today, in the business world it is not necessary to wait for a female to initiate the handshake. Females/males should both be ready to initiate the handshake.



Introducing people is one of the most important acts in business life, yet few people know how to do it. Introduce a younger person to an older person; introduce a non-official person to an official person; and in business introduce the junior to the senior. Be sure to explain who people are and use their full names. Also, do not assume that everyone wants to be called by his or her first name.


In many situations you will be wearing a nametag to identify yourself and your affiliation. Nametags serve an important purpose and should be worn on the right hand side of your front shoulder area. Do not clip nametags to the bottom edge of your jacket. Wearing the nametag on the right hand side of your shoulder immediately enables a person to see your name, particularly as you are shaking hands. If the nametag is one worn on a cord around the neck, be sure to adjust the length so it can be easily seen without the other person having to look down. If writing your own nametag, write in large clear letters that can be easily read by others.

Reception/Social hour

When you enter the reception, observe the layout of the room: is everyone standing or are there cocktail rounds or tables for seating? Seeing the room layout gives you a clue on how to proceed at the reception.

If no tables are available, you should only have a drink or your food in your hand – never both. You should be prepared to greet and shake hands with individuals. If having a drink, hold it in your left hand to keep your right hand dry and ready to shake hands. If eating, hold your plate on the right hand and eat with the left hand. When someone approaches, you are able to switch the plate to your left hand and your right hand is clean and ready to shake. If tables are available, you may have your drink and food together.

However, always be ready to stand and greet people.

Networking and/or mingling are an important aspect of attending a business function even if the event is described as a social time. Be sure to greet or introduce yourself to the host/hostess. Spend a few minutes conversing with them on topics that relate to the event or to their business. To move on you can politely say “I know you need to talk with your other guests.” Connect with as many of the attendees as is possible. Do not interrupt people, but wait until they include you or there is a break in the conversation and you can introduce yourself. To start conversations, ask the person something about themselves or their job.

Dining etiquette

Table Setting. Remember the guideline “to start at the outside and work your way in.” If you have been given two forks, which are the same size, begin with the fork on the outside. Many restaurants use the same size of fork for both the salad and main course. 

Napkin. When dining with others place your napkin on your lap after everyone at your table has been seated. Do not open your napkin in mid-air. As you remove your napkin from the table begin to open below the table level and place on your lap. If you must leave a meal, do so between courses, and place your napkin on your chair or to the left of your plate. When a meal is completed, place your napkin to the right of your plate – never on the plate. 

Served. Wait for everyone at your table to be served before beginning to eat. However, if an individual who has not been served encourages you to begin eating, you may do so. Eat slowly while waiting for their food to be served.

Soup. When eating soup, think of making a circle: spoon away from you, bring around to your mouth and back to the bowl. Soup is taken from the side of the soup spoon – it is not inserted into your mouth. Do not slurp or make noises when eating soup.

Utensils. There are two acceptable ways to use the knife and fork: continental fashion and American standard. Continental fashion – the diner cuts the food usually one bite at a time and uses the fork in the left hand, tines pointing down, to spear the food and bring it to the mouth. American standard – a few bites are cut, the knife is laid across the top of the plate, sharp edge toward you, and the fork is switched to the right hand, if right-handed, tines up to bring the food to the mouth.

Dessert Utensils. Dessert utensils may be found placed across the top of the place setting. Place these utensils down for use after the main course is removed (fork to the left and spoon to the right).

Passing. Pass “community food” such as the breadbasket, salt and pepper, and salad dressing to the right. Always pass the salt and pepper together. When passing items such as a creamer, syrup pitcher or gravy boat, pass it with the handle pointing toward the recipient.

Seasoning. Always taste your food first before using any seasonings. Do not assume it needs to be seasoned.

Sweeteners. Do not be excessive with sugar or sweetener packets.

Bread. Bread/rolls should never be eaten whole. Break into smaller, more manageable pieces, buttering only a few bites at a time.

Glasses. Your items to drink will be located in the area above your knife and spoon. Coffee cups may be located to the right of the knife and spoon.

Alcohol. Alcohol, if consumed, should be in moderation. In most cases you may have a drink during the social hour and wine(s) with the dinner. If you do not want an alcoholic drink politely decline.

Buffets. Buffets provide an opportunity to select items you enjoy. Do not overload your plate. Select a balanced variety of food items.

Pre-Set Meals. If allergic, religious or vegetarian issues arise, quietly deal with these as the server is at your side. For vegetarian, ask if you may have a vegetable plate; with allergies or religion provide the server with some options.

Ordering from Menu. As the guest, select an item that is in the mid-price range, easy to eat and you will enjoy. Consider asking your host/hostess for a recommendation before making your decision. 

Finished. When finished with a course, leave your plates in the same position that they were presented to you.

Guest. If you are someone’s guest at a meal, ask the person what he/she recommends. By doing this, you will learn price range guidelines and have an idea of what to order. Usually order an item in the mid-price range. Also keep in mind, the person who typically initiates the meal will pay. Thank them for the meal.

Restaurant Staff. Wait staff, servers, Maitre d’, etc. are your allies. They can assist you with whatever problem may arise. Quietly get their attention and speak to them about the issue.

Business etiquette

Punctuality. Be on time. If it is an unavoidable delay, try to contact the person. Keep in mind that you never know when you will encounter heavy traffic, wrecks, construction or other delays. Always allow extra time particularly if you are going to an interview. For interviews you should arrive 10 to 15 minutes before the interview time.

Smoking. Be aware of smoking policies. You should never smoke during an interview, at a meal or when you are aware that the other person’s pleasure does not include tobacco smoke.

Office Parties. Office parties are good opportunities to improve morale and build good will. Be aware of your alcoholic consumption and do not embarrass yourself. Do not discuss business – this is a social occasion.


Telephone. Have a definite purpose for calling someone because telephone calls are an intrusion into their busy day. Identify yourself and speak clearly into the phone – never chew gum, eat, drink or smoke while using the telephone.

Voicemail/Answering Machine. If you encounter someone’s voicemail, state your name, organization, and reason for calling and slowly give your telephone number. Many people will leave a clear message and then quickly rattle off their phone number. Voicemail is most efficient if you leave a concise but detailed message. Many times the person receiving the call will be able to get the information you need and leave that in their return call or message to you. Always have a concise, professional greeting on your answering machine/voicemail.

Email. Always put identifying information in the subject line to help the individual receiving the message know what it is in reference to. The text box of the email message should begin with a salutation such as Dear Ms. Smith or Hello John, depending on the relationship. After the salutation, drop down to the next line to begin the message. Use complete sentences and appropriate capitalization and punctuation as you would use in a business letter. If needed you may have multiple paragraphs. The casual email correspondence you have with your friends is not appropriate for business. Do not use all caps in the message nor the symbols for happy faces, etc. Even if you have automatic signature on your email, you should still close the message (Ex. Thank you, Ann Smith). Remember to read proof your message before sending.


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