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Business Lunch Etiquette

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 2 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Business Lunch Business Lunches Business

It’s estimated that more business deals get done over lunch than get done in the board room so it goes without saying that business lunches are not events to be taken lightly nor are they simply about two people or a group of people getting together for a ‘catch-up’ and an excuse not to go back to the office in the afternoon. For those who have experienced countless business lunches they can be something to be looked forward to or they can be loathed but perceived as a necessary part of the job whilst for the uninitiated, the thought of a business lunch is enough to have you quaking in your boots. However, they can be very pleasurable experiences or, at least, bearable if you know a few ‘rules’ about what’s expected and how you should conduct yourself.

Be There On Time

There is nothing more annoying for the person waiting than for their guest(s) being late for a business lunch. Contrary to some people’s opinions, business lunches are not an excuse to take the afternoon off and enjoy yourself and, whilst some will inevitably last longer than others, many busy business people have a strictly managed timetable so, unless it’s absolutely out of your control, never be late for a business lunch. The memory of you arriving late will live long beyond any apology for being so.

Turn Off the Mobile

It’s important that you focus on the ‘here and now’ and on your guests. Whilst some people might make the excuse that they need to be ‘on message’ at all times, for the most part, this is incredibly rude and shows a lack of respect. Many people have scuppered big business deals simply by taking a call when they’ve invited their guests with the intention of securing a business deal and then ignored them for a few minutes to take a call.


Always offer a handshake but, unless you know the person or people with whom you’re having lunch with very well (and that means all of the people attending lunch), don’t be tempted to come out with anything ‘smart’ or funny. What some may find amusing, others might not and that will put them off you straight away. It’s also useful to think of an opening statement as you shake hands if you’ve never met them before e.g. “Thanks for taking the time to come to meet me today, Mr Smith”.

Obviously, if you know the other person quite well, it’s perfectly acceptable to greet them by their first name. And, if you’ve been invited to lunch by a company and they have happened to have brought along group of colleagues, make sure you shake hands with the most senior ranked member first if you know who that is, unless you’ve been invited by a specific individual within a company, then you should shake their hand first and then the rest of the people in the order in which you are introduced to them.

Small Talk

This is one of those areas which so often puts people at their ease but which can also cause the most embarrassment. There are no hard and fast rules about how long you should wait until you get around to the subject of business and a general rule of thumb is to be guided by the person who has invited you. If they’re happy to chat about the football last night for 5 minutes or so, go along with that as it will help you relax and put you more at ease for when you get down to the nitty-gritty of discussing business. However, if there are VIPs present or the chairman of the company is there, it’s more likely that they’ll want to keep any small talk to a minimum and get on with the business at hand. It’s always better to take your cue from the person who invited you with regard to this delicate matter.

Who pays?

No matter that your guest may be far richer than you, if you’ve done the inviting, you should always pick up the tab. If it’s a joint meeting, you should always ask either at the beginning or before the meeting has taken place how they want to split the bill and not wait until the bill arrives to discuss it as that shows an element of professional weakness. And, if somebody has agreed to meet you as you’re seeking advice from them, not only you should you pay but it’s also good manners to send them a ‘thank you’ note which is handwritten and even perhaps send them a small gift to express your gratitude at giving up some of their time for you.


Whether it’s your napkin or knife and fork, knowing how to use your utensils is often the one thing that instills fear into everybody who’s not been used to attending a business lunch. It’s quite simple to remember really and most people who get it wrong do so because they’ve been so paralysed by fear and they’ve convinced themselves they will mess up regardless. So, it’s place the napkin on your lap not down your shirt collar and usually, if the napkin is still in the wine goblet and not placed on the table, you can take that to indicate that the waiter will place the napkin on your lap for you. Bread and salad plates are usually placed on your left, drinking glasses on your right.

Utensils like knives, forks and spoons should be used from the outside and work your way in for each course with the dessert spoon by the dessert plate. If you need to excuse yourself whilst the meal is in progress, put the napkin on the left hand side of your plate or on your chair as this indicates to the waiter that you’ve not finished yet. You should always say, ‘Excuse me’ to your guests as you stand up to leave the table. Once you are through with your meal, put the napkin on the right side of the plate and place your knife and fork horizontally across the plate to signal the waiter. Also, remember not to start eating until your host has given some kind of cue to do so.

However, the important thing to remember about business lunches is that they’re usually so focused on business that if you use the wrong knife for a particular course, it’s not going to cost you the ‘deal’. Some people have had far more experience of business lunches than others and it comes more naturally to some people more than others and you get used to them over time as you attend more. So as long as you are polite and respectful, don’t get too agitated at the thought of attending a business lunch, the next time you’re invited to one.

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