Reclaiming Etiquette: Dining Basics for New Professionals


We live in a society that values speed and multitasking. Dining has devolved into something that needs to be checked off of our To Do List, rather than an event with its own unique process and traditions. Eating from a Styrofoam tray may be fine on our own time, but uber-casual dining habits can sometimes leave us at a disadvantage during a client meeting, formal event, or lunch interview. As the job market tightens, here are a few quick and easy lessons on dining etiquette that can help young professionals stand out from the crowd.


It nearly goes without saying: don’t begin eating until everyone has been served. Upon serving, the host should be the first to begin dining, unless he or she indicates otherwise.


Utensil placement indicates the order of use — work from the outside in (for example the outer-most fork is for the salad). During the meal, set your utensils down completely on your plate. Never rest a used utensil on the table or dangling off the edge of a plate (half-on, half-off). When you’ve finished your meal, placing your knife and fork together in the center of your plate in a shallow “V” position indicates to the waitstaff that you’re done.


Place your folded napkin in your lap immediately upon being seated. Unfold the napkin while it’s on your lap, rather than on the table. The napkin should remain in your lap until the meal is finished, or until you need to excuse yourself from the table temporarily. When leaving the table, fold the napkin and place it to the left of your dinner plate (or on the left, if your plate has already been cleared).


The host sets the tone for the meal. Don’t order alcohol unless the host has ordered it. At restaurants, don’t exceed the price of the host’s ordered item (for this purpose, when selecting from the menu, it’s good to choose two items — one that is your first choice and then a more moderately-priced alternate). Avoid ordering items which involve more courses than the host or other guests.

The Tab

When dining out, it’s business-appropriate for the person who organized the meal to cover the cost. Offering to pay or to ‘chip in’ on the gratuity, is not expected or considered necessarily polite. A ‘thank you’ at the conclusion of the meal is all that’s required.


Formal events should be considered ‘tech-free’ zones. If you must be plugged in and accessible during such times, make sure your PDA, phone, or pager is not audible (this includes a rattling vibrate). Essential calls may be made by excusing yourself from the table and other diners.

Quick Bites

Here are a few quick pointers on the finer details of dining:

  • In a formal dining environment, don’t blow on hot food to cool it down. Let the hot item cool naturally.
  • Never salt your food before the first taste — this suggests you don’t anticipate good flavor and is an insult to the cook.
  • When signaling to waitstaff, discreetly raise your hand while making eye contact. It’s never appropriate to tap on your glass to get a waiter’s attention.
  • If you need an item that’s not within easy reach, politely ask a fellow diner to pass it to you. Never stretch to reach an item or think the term “pardon my reach,” absolves you of this impolite maneuver. When asked, it's proper to always pass the salt and pepper together, even if only one was requested.

Admittedly, few of us need to channel Don Draper for lunch at The Four Seasons, but a few etiquette basics can hold us in good stead as our careers advance. Though societal rules are changing quickly and the finer point manners are sometimes considered antiquated, don’t doubt people are watching and drawing conclusions based upon how well each of us navigates different social environments. Enjoy your knowledge, let it give you that added bit of confidence and, of course, Bon Appetit!

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Guest's picture

Kentin, great post.

Guest's picture

Nice post. In my field a job interview almost always includes a lunch or dinner with the rest of the department. Some other pieces of advice I give my proteges:

* You are STILL on the job, or the interview, or the sales call. Behave accordingly.
* If it's an interview, pass on the alcohol. Period.
* If possible take a chair facing away from the room. There will be fewer distractions.
* Try to talk to everyone seated near you; don't ignore one side for the other.
* Even if the restaurant has a reputation for the best lobster or ribs, or whatever, order something that isn't messy or complicated. A spill or stain will throw you off your game even if the interviewer doesn't care.
* if a bone or pit has to come out of your mouth, it should be the way it went in: on a fork.
* Don't forget to eat! Don't talk with your mouth full, but take time to actually finish your meal.

Thanks for the post!

Guest's picture
Ein Gast

Regarding the position of Utensils on the plate.

At least in Central Europe, a V shaped placed set of utensils is used to to indicate that one has not yet finished. Whereas a if you put the utensils together in the right corner, a well-educated waiters knows, that he can take the plate.

mind the cultural differences, if you move out of your context.
Having said that, thanks for the article