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Your Fork Is Not a Shovel: Business Etiquette and Know-How for Today's New Professional

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After attending many a business lunch, corporate event, dinner outing, and more under the guise of ''work fun'' (raise your hand if you think that's an oxymoron), I feel compelled to write the following, rather obvious statement: Your fork is not a shovel. And while we're on the subject, I might also mention that your knife is not a saw and that your napkin should not be waved around like you're heading off to a bullfight later on today.

At the risk of sounding slightly obnoxious (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that one, anyway) and a tad Miss Manners-ish, consider the fact that I’ve spoken with lots of college and MBA students — not to mention many interns, international hires, and new professionals — who all want to know how to dine graciously and comfortably without making fools of themselves along the way. Having learned business etiquette the hard way (ask me about the night I spit spaghetti on my boss’s tie), I realized I had to get business etiquette right.

Why is it so important to get business etiquette right, particularly in social settings? Well, consider the fact that in today’s busy workplace, where most of our communication is done via email or over the phone, a given social setting may be the first time (and only time, in some cases) many of your coworkers get to meet you in person. And as the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Also consider the fact that business etiquette in social situations is one of the many ways in which you are evaluated as an employee. Like it or not, your boss may question whether he can put you in front of a potential client, or even in front of his own boss, depending on how well you make chit-chat and how you hold your fork. The bottom line is that bad table manners leave a bad impression, and simply detract from the professional, polished, confident image that we all want to convey when it comes to our careers.

As we enter the season of office picnics, lunches with the boss, and various other summer outings at work, allow me to share a few of the fine points (and really obvious ones, too) about fine dining. Granted, some of the points discussed below may seem silly, overly detailed, or simply unnecessary, but think of dining etiquette like pieces in a puzzle — you need to put all of the little pieces together to get the right outcome.

For all of you well-mannered, elegant readers out there, feel free to drop this article anonymously on the desk of that oaf sitting next to you. For everyone else, read on:

To drink out of the right water glass, think BMW.

Here’s an easy way to avoid drinking out of your boss’s water glass: Think BMW. As you look down at your place setting and scan your eyes left to right, simply think, ''bread, middle, water.'' The bread plate (and other food) will always be to your left, and your water glass (and other liquids), will always be to your right.

Keep your napkin in your lap.

Here’s a question that has caused many a sleepless night: When should I put my napkin in my lap? Answer: The minute you sit down. Once your host (the person who has invited you) puts her napkin in her lap, you should follow suit and do the same. Generally, your dining napkin should be placed on your lap and folded in half — don’t spread it across your lap like you’re getting ready to have a picnic on it.

Throughout your meal, your napkin should stay in your lap. If you need to leave the table, place your napkin in your chair while you are gone. Please, don’t put your gross, ketchup-stained napkin on the table for the rest of us to look at. (In fact, the word ''ketchup'' shouldn’t even escape your lips during a fine dining experience.) And while we’re on the subject of gross, if you’re even thinking of blowing your nose in your napkin, please don’t dine with me or anyone else who wishes to have an appetite while eating. Ick.

Your fork is not a shovel.

It’s not a magic wand, a spear, or something to click against your teeth, either. It’s also not something to be clenched with a fist, like a little kid holding onto a toy for dear life. As silly as it may sound, many of us don’t hold our dining utensils correctly or even come close. While there are several different ways to hold and use a knife and fork correctly, the most common method used in the United States is as follows:
When you eat, your fork is held in your right hand like a pencil. (For all of you lefties out there, the fork is still held in the right hand.) The tines (i.e., the prongs of the fork) face up. When you cut your food, switch hands: Fork goes in the left hand, knife goes in the right to cut. Using your index finger, point your fork with the tines down to pierce your food. Switch the fork back to the right hand to eat. Presto! Elegant dining!

Be a charming chit-chatter.

There is definitely an art to small talk, and you’ll have plenty of time to practice lots of it at any business function. Particularly in a dining setting, where the ''serious'' table talk doesn’t often occur until halfway or even three-quarters of the way through a meal, you’ll have ample opportunity to get to know the person across the table through conversation. While you don’t have to drone on and on about the weather all night, as a general guideline, keep your chit-chat extremely safe. Asking questions like, ''What made you decide to live in New York?'' or ''What do you like best about your job?'' are good places to start.

Likewise, you’ll want to avoid ''dangerous'' topics such as religion, politics, money, and sex. Also, stay away from asking family-related topics unless the other person brings it up first. Consider the time I innocently asked a colleague, ''How is your husband?'' Her curt reply: ''We’re divorced.''

Bonus chit-chat suggestion: Even if she looks like she’s about to deliver a baby tomorrow, never, ever ask a woman when she is due. Trust me, this one has backfired on so many people it isn’t funny.

Whether you’re attending your first business social event or your twentieth, the moral of the story is always the same: You’re not there for the food or the open bar — you’re there to build relationships. A business lunch or office barbeque is a terrific place for others to get to know you, trust you, and give your career a little boost. Keep the focus off your table manners, so that others can focus on you instead.

About the Author

Elizabeth Freedman, MBA, is an award-winning speaker and business columnist. Throughout the year, Elizabeth Freedman speaks to dozens of universities and organizations and at regional and national conferences to help college students, MBA students, and new professionals transform into leaders, savvy marketers, team players, and, ultimately, successful employees. For more information, please contact Elizabeth Freedman at or call (617) 784-6598.
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