What's the big deal about manners?

Can I interest you folks in some dessert to go along with that $2.38 billion hostile takeover you've just concocted over your grilled salmon?"

That's not a standard waiter's line to restaurant customers, but it might as well be.

The power meal has become such an important part of dealmaking in corporate America that, by one estimate, some 70 percent of all business transactions finish up at the dining table.

But a meal can also be a deal breaker. Plenty of people with a head for business don't have the foggiest idea which fork to use or which butter plate belongs to them.

Indeed, in this dress-down society, it seems manners have gone the way of the power suit. But if you think proper protocol doesn't matter, think again.

"We live in a sound bite culture," says Dana May Casperson, a business etiquette consultant in Santa Rosa, Calif. "Your credibility is being assessed across the dining table."

Ms. Casperson has been advising both children and adults on the proper utensils for more than a decade. She's written a new book on the topic titled "Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career" (Amacom).

We sat down for a lesson with the manners maven recently at the posh Pino Hollywood restaurant in Hollywood, Calif., where dealmaking is par for the main course.

And she proceeded to critique the crowd - graciously avoiding comment on the interviewer and photographer.

"That woman over there has her cell phone and her elbows on the table," she quips.

"And I believe that man is taking notes on the tablecloth."

(A reminder: Elbows and cell phones never go on the table. As for writing on the tablecloth, you can figure that one out on your own.)

Part of making a power lunch go more smoothly, Casperson says, is knowing why you're getting together in the first place.

If you're the host, serve the agenda before the appetizers (if possible, before you get to the restaurant). Do you want to seal a deal, pitch a new product, or just get to know someone a little better?

And determine who pays prior to the meal. Many a good deal meal has been mashed because of confusion over who gets the tab, she says.

Another key: Polish that power handshake. (Her book includes a how-to diagram.)

"A weak handshake has a powerful impact on making the deal," she says.

You should shake hands when you are introduced to someone, introduce yourself to someone else, and say goodbye.

And remember, the business handshake observes no gender distinction.

On more confusing points, fall back on common sense.

"People ask me all the time: 'What do I do when my napkin falls on the floor?' "

"Pick it up," she snaps.

Did you knock over a glass of water?

"Stay cool. Don't draw attention to yourself." If your spill stains someone else's clothes, offer to pay for dry-cleaning.

A lot of us want to blame lack of time for poor manners - an excuse dismissed out of hand by Casperson.

"Basic manners should not be altered by time factors and stress," she contends.

Other dos and don'ts:

*Don't ask to taste someone else's dish. (No joke, one client did.) And don't ask the waiter for a doggie bag.

*Don't blow your nose in your napkin.

*No stringy pasta or slippery seafood.

*Don't talk with your mouth full or chew with your mouth open.

*Ladies, no lipstick at the table; gents, no ties slung over the shoulder.

"People say, "Oh, I'm doing everything wrong,'" she says.

We all make mistakes, Casperson says. The problem is when you set a pattern of poor behavior. Enjoy your lunch, but show some grace and style.

And if you think you've blown it by accidentally poaching a roll off your boss's butter plate, consider the man who reached across the table to gobble a few last-minute leftovers the second his companion got up to leave.

Mind over manners

All sorts of rules come into play when ordering, eating, and paying at a business lunch.

Consider the following questions to find out how etiquette savvy you are.

Where should you put your cell phone during lunch? Leave it in your briefcase turned off. If you must accept a call, alert your host or guest when you sit down. When the phone rings, excuse yourself from the table; keep the conversation private; keep it brief.

Who orders first? The host directs the server to the guest first.

Where do I put my hands? Remember what your mother told you - keep those elbows off the table; forearms sometimes on, wrists always.

What should I do if my fork or napkin falls on the floor? If the fork falls, scoot it under the table with your foot, and ask the server for another. For a wayward napkin, pick it up unless you will disappear from view to reach it.

What should I do if the check is put in front of me but I was invited to lunch? Wait for the host to reach for the bill. If the host suffers a sudden attack of "cheap" and does not, suggest that you split the bill.

What if I get food stuck between my teeth? Don't draw attention to yourself. If you can't free the food with your tongue (lips closed), try digging for that final morsel from behind a napkin. If that's awkward, live with it or head for the rest room.

When a valet hails a taxi, who enters first, my client or me? The host enters first and then the guest; the valet closes the door after the guest enters.

Source: Power Etiquette

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