Modern Etiquette: Keep up your professional image at dinner

(Pamela Eyring is the president and director of The Protocol School of Washington, which provides certified professional etiquette and protocol training. Founded in 1988, PSOW is the only school of its kind in the U.S. to become accredited. PSOW's website is Any opinions expressed are her own.)

An example of table setting is seen on display at a State Dinner preview event at the White House in Washington, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

WASHINGTON (Reuters Life!) - When most of us think about how we’re perceived professionally, we conjure up images of ourselves giving boardroom presentations or skilfully negotiating contracts with clients. Yet one of the strongest indicators of how truly professional you are is not how you handle a room or host a meeting, but how you handle yourself at the dining table.

Your grasp of basic manners and etiquette is a projection of your experience, your status and, of course, your professionalism. More importantly, how you conduct yourself at the dining table gives potential clients and partners a sense of how you will handle their business and your relationship.

Appropriate dining behaviour is a way to prove to your boss and those in the corner office that you are an individual capable of representing their company in a manner that advances the company’s reputation and goals.

Earning Your Seat at the Table.

While there are many fine points to dining, today I will cover the most basic and essential points here. Just adhering to these few simple pointers will establish you as a professional at the dining table and beyond.


Never place keys, purses, hats, gloves, eyeglasses, folders, or anything that is not part of the meal on the table. If items must be in reach, tuck them in a pocket or neatly beneath or behind your chair.


The napkin should be picked up, unfolded and placed on the lap, but not above the table level. A large dinner napkin is folded in half, with the fold facing the body, while the luncheon napkin should be opened completely. Do not wipe your mouth with the napkin; instead, blot it.

Your napkin should remain on your lap during the meal. If you need to leave the table temporarily, place your napkin in your chair and push your chair back under the table - this signals to the wait staff that you will be returning to the table. When you return to your seat, return the napkin to your lap. At the end of the meal, loosely place the napkin to the left of the plate. Do not refold it - this signals to the wait staff that you have finished your meal.


Always sit up straight and bring food to your mouth rather than your mouth to the food. Look around the table and pace your eating to that of other diners to ensure no one else feels hurried.


Work silverware from the outside in. Once you pick up a piece of silverware, it should never touch the table again. If you are not using the utensil, put it down on the plate. Use a knife and fork to cut only one piece of food at a time. When you finish a course, place the knife and fork in the “finished” position. Picturing your plate as the face of a clock, the tip of the knife and fork are at 10:00 and the handles are at 4:00. The blade of the knife faces the fork, not the edge of the plate.


It’s not unusual for a confused diner to be unsure which bread plate and water glass are theirs and mistakenly “borrow” their neighbours. To avoid making this embarrassing faux pas, remember B.M.W.: Bread, Meal, Water. Your bread plate is always on your left, your meal is in the middle of the place setting, and your water is always on your right.


How you butter your bread is one of the biggest indicators of good vs. bad table manners. Always put butter on your bread plate rather than directly on your roll. Break, don’t cut the bread, and then butter one bite-sized piece at a time. Never butter a whole slice of bread at once, or slice a roll in half and butter it.


Business meals present the unique challenge of simultaneously trying to stay engaged in the conversation and enjoying a meal. The best strategy for this involves taking small bites, finishing chewing, smiling, and then carrying on the conversation. Never speak with food in your mouth.

Whether a business meal is casual or formal, simply adhering to these basic points will go a long way to making a favourable and lasting impression on all dining companions.

Bon appétit!

Editing by Paul Casciato