Not-So-Secret Rules of Business Etiquette

Have you ever heard, “Don’t place your elbows on the table…it isn’t polite,” only to be left wondering, “Why is this such a bad thing?”

There are a myriad of small actions that we’ve taken in business meetings, networking events, and other professional gatherings, that shaped the outcomes of those meetings in ways that we may not have noticed. In this article, we’ll explore the reasons why certain actions, from body language to the type of food we order at lunch, are sometimes considered inappropriate, impolite, or just plain rude in formal and business settings. By implementing a few etiquette enhancements, you’ll experience more positive outcomes from your business meetings and, at the very least, a higher level of respect from those that you meet in the professional world.

Keep your elbows to yourself.

Annoyed woman being angry about her date talking on the phoneAccording to ancient text dating back to 200 to 175 BCE written by the Jewish scribe Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem as noted in the Wisdom of Sirach, placing your elbows on the table during a meal is bad, and it has been for thousands of years. “Be ashamed of…leaning on the dinner table with your elbows.”

Why? According to Cathy Bracken, founder and etiquette consultant at The American School of Charm & Etiquette, there are a couple of common-sense reasons why you shouldn’t place your elbows on a table while eating. “Hygiene matters and you don’t want to look like a caveman,” said Bracken. “It’s important to keep a dining table as clean as possible and the fewer body parts on the table the better. Plus, placing your elbows on the table around your plate is primitive body language that signifies you are trying to guard your meal. There’s no need for that in post-caveman times.”

Whether or not ancient Jews were concerned with personal hygiene or if there was some other cause for the no-elbows rule is up for debate, but you can rest assured that your colleagues, prospects, and other business professionals will notice, subconsciously or consciously, if you get too casual with your elbows at a business luncheon while there is still food on the table. Exceptions may occasionally be made if everyone at the table is done eating or if the room is so noisy that you must lean forward to speak or hear someone across the table.

Shaken, not stirred…in fact, don’t make it at all.

Should you drink alcohol at a work or networking event? According to a 2006 survey of 505 human resources professionals by the Society for Human Resources Management, the following stats indicate whether or not the respondents believed drinking was acceptable in various situations.

  • 70%: Acceptable at a holiday party
  • 40%: Acceptable at a meal with a client or customer
  • 32%: Acceptable at a retirement party
  • 28%: Acceptable at the celebration of a company milestone
  • 22%: Acceptable at a meal with a coworker
  • 4%: Acceptable at a meal during a job interview
  • 14%: Never acceptable

In most cases, you can’t go wrong by simply choosing to abstain from partaking in alcoholic beverages when your career is involved. Consuming  alcoholic beverages during a business lunch, or daytime networking event is also not advisable. An alcoholic beverage during business dinners or at an after-work professional networking event is totally acceptable. If you do decide to drink alcohol, know your body and don’t risk drinking too much – it could ruin your career.

Toasting is an honorary gesture. “When a toast is given, everyone at the table drinks,” said Bracken. “This applies whether or not you’re drinking alcohol.”

You don’t have to drink the whole glass, but it is always most appropriate to raise your glass until the toast is complete and to take at least one sip while maintaining eye contact with people near you.

When it comes to drinking alcohol at a professional event, err on the side of caution and always be discreet about it.

Burgers and fries don’t mix with bowties.

Ordering a meal at a lunch interview, client meeting, or just about any other event where you and the people you are with are wearing formal attire is not as straightforward as if you were eating alone. Choosing the right meal will likely go unnoticed. But choosing the wrong meal or restaurant could spark an awkward situation.

Burgers, pizza, fried chicken, and many common pasta dishes are generally poor choices for professional meetings. These casual food options are not inherently bad, but they do present some technical issues. With food, think simple, clean, and silverware-appropriate. The messier a food item is, the more likely it is to end up on someone’s white shirt or suit.

Restaurants that specialize in delicious fried chicken, mouth-watering burgers, and heavenly deep dish pizza are not generally considered “fine-dining” establishments. If you’re the person choosing the dining location, consider your audience first. If you are meeting with your potential boss or a prospective client, it’s in your best interest to impress them. Choosing a restaurant with a quiet atmosphere, professional service, and solid reputation for attention to detail is far more important than finding the best burger in the state.

Are your manners helping or hurting you in business?

Take this short quiz to find out if your mother would be impressed by your business etiquette.

True or False?

The answers are at the end of the quiz (no cheating!).

  1. You should place your napkin in your chair when you are finished dining, after you’ve left the table.
  2. The correct way to eat a roll is to butter the whole role and then eat it in three or four large bites.
  3. When dining continental, shift the fork from the left hand to the right hand when cutting.
  4. If you are eating a messy meal (Example: spare ribs), it is perfectly all right to tuck your napkin under your chin.
  5. To ask a waiter or maitre d’ for assistance during a meal because you don’t know how to handle a course shows self-confidence.
  6. It is appropriate to make reservations in advance and to arrive at the restaurant a few minutes ahead of your client(s).
  7. It is polite and appropriate for men to order for women at a business dinner.
  8. It is appropriate to make it known in advance and before food is served if you must leave lunch at a certain time.
  9. If you are dining with two guests, you should seat yourself between them.
  10. It is acceptable to discuss business while waiting for your lunch.

To learn more about how you and your business can get a boost by implementing some etiquette enhancements, contact Cathy Bracken, founder and etiquette consultant at The American School of Charm & Etiquette. Email or visit to learn more about hands-on dining eitiquette workshops.

cathy brackenThe American School of Charm & Etiquette was founded by Cathy Bracken, a current business owner and small business advocate. Cathy trained at the Ophelia DeVore School of Charm in New York City prior to college. She later attended Howard University, in Washington D.C., where she earned her B.A. in business administration. In 1991, Cathy launched her first etiquette, beauty charisma, and personal development training seminar business. She received her life coaching credentials from the American School of Professional Life Coaching and her advanced corporate etiquette training education from the American School of Protocol, in Atlanta, GA. Cathy is a certified leadership coach, teacher, and speaker with the world renowned John Maxwell Team.

Cathy Bracken

Founder of The American School of Charm and Etiquette

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Quiz Answers

  1. False
  2. False
  3. False
  4. False
  5. True
  6. True
  7. False
  8. True
  9. False
  10. False

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