It’s Laura here, stepping in for Brent this week.

So, you’re invited to a formal business dinner, but do you know the proper etiquette? Allow me to help…

Do: Use the envelope as a cue to who is invited.
Don’t: Assume you may bring a guest.

I’ve been surprised how many people weren’t taught this, but you can totally, and
should, use the envelope of an invitation to determine who is invited. For example:

  1. Mr. John Smith = Only John Smith is invited.
  2. Mr. John Smith and Guest = John may bring a guest.
  3. Mr. and Mrs. Bob Jones = Bob and his wife are invited.
  4. The Jones Family/ Mr. and Mrs. Bob Jones and Family = The entire Jones family is invited.
  5. Mr. and Mrs. Bob Jones, Miss Emily Jones, and Master David Jones = Bob, his wife, Emily and David are invited, but their two-year-old is not.

If you’re invited via email it should include details regarding guests. If it does not, reach out to your employer’s assistant for guidance. NEVER reach out to the individual(s) hosting you to pose this question; they are likely paying for you to attend. By asking you are putting them under pressure to allow you to bring a guest.

Do: Wear the provided name tag.
Don’t: Place it in an awkward position.

Always wear your name tag at the top of your chest, near your right shoulder and provide your full name as you introduce yourself. As you reach out to shake hands, your right shoulder will come forward, emphasizing your name tag. The person on the receiving end of your handshake will both see and hear your name simultaneously, increasing the likelihood for them to remember it.

Do: Find your table promptly.
Don’t: Just sit anywhere.

You should remain standing until the guest of honor arrives and invites you to be seated. If place cards have not been set, the guest of honor will take the seat with the best view, and if they’ve brought a guest, that individual will sit to their left. The guest of honor may instruct everyone where to sit, but if not, take any seat, ensuring that those attending together are not separated. In business dining it is not necessary to pull out the seat for a woman unless she is your guest.

Do: Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the table setting.
Don’t: Accidentally use someone else’s glass or utensils.

Your first action once seated should be placing your napkin on your lap. Fold your napkin in half diagonally, forming a triangle. Place the fold closest to your navel and the open ends facing your knees.

Have you ever wondered which glass is yours? Press your pointer finger against the pad of your thumb on the same hand. Hold your other fingers up in the air. Your left hand will create a “b” and your right hand will create a “d”. Your bread is on the left and your drink is on the right.


Image Source

Utensils are placed in the order of use from the outside in. The smaller fork is for a salad or appetizer and the larger fork is for dinner. A dessert spoon and fork may appear above your plate.

Do: Help pass the meal.
Don’t: Reach across the table.

You will always be served on your left and should pass dishes to your right. If needed, hold the dish for the person to your right who serves himself or herself, then holds the platter for the person to his/her right. When the table host or the guest of honor lifts his/her fork you may begin eating.

Never reach across the table to grab something. Rather, ask for the item to be passed in your direction. Never ask the server to bring you something that isn’t presented at the table – the only exceptions being salt and pepper.

If you must take a break for any reason, rest your knife across the top of your plate and the fork at the 3:00 position. To signal you are finished, place utensils at the 4:20 clock position.

Do: Enjoy an alcoholic beverage with dinner (obvious exceptions occur).
Don’t: Have more than one drink at a business function.

While two plus glasses of wine may sound great, while attending business functions it is only acceptable to consume one drink of alcohol.

Do: Place your napkin over your arm or on the edge of the table if you must leave your seat.
Don’t: Place your napkin on your seat.

If the dessert is buffet style, place your napkin over your arm as you move through the line. If you have to leave the table during dinner for any reason, place your napkin towards the edge of the table to the left of you plate. You will likely find that it has been replaced with a clean napkin when you return. If you drop your napkin at any point during the meal, ask the server to bring you a new one.

Keep the following in mind while enjoying the meal:

  • Keep eye contact with whoever is speaking. The only exception is when you take a sip of your drink. Break eye contact while you take the sip and return eye contact as you set the glass back down.
  • Never make a negative comment about the meal.
  • Always break bread with your fingers and never butter the entire roll in advance. Pull off a small piece, butter that piece, and enjoy it. Repeat.
  • If you spill, neatly pick up or clean up as much as you can. Immediately apologize to the others at the table. Discreetly signal the server who will assist you with cleaning up.
  • If you take a bite of food that too hot or spoiled, discreetly return the food to your fork or spoon and put it on the edge of your plate.
  • If you cough or sneeze during the meal, cover your mouth and nose with your napkin (if you do not have a handkerchief available). Never blow your nose at the table, if you need to, excuse yourself to the restroom.

Do: Thank the host and whomever invited you.
Don’t: Forget to write a note.

At the end of the event, wait for the guest of honor or host to rise. Be certain to push your chair back under the table. Thank whomever invited you as well as the host.

You should also send a thank you note to whomever invited you. Never send a thank you note with “thank you” written on the outside; there is no reason for the recipient to read the inside.  Keep the note brief and to the point, but don’t send a card with a printed message and just sign your name. Take the time to personalize the note and mention specifically why you are thanking the individual.

Is etiquette irrelevant? I would argue that it is not. Etiquette is a clear set of guidelines that will help you navigate all situations with taste and class.

P.S. Do you have an etiquette tip worth sharing? Post it to the comments!