All the Etiquette Questions and Rules You’ve Avoided (that can get you through the door)

 November 2, 2016

You are at a large business networking event. How do you pick a seat at an event without assigned seating? Who should you be speaking to at a table full of strangers? What do you do if you see someone at the table cough into your food? Duke graduate students gathered at Washington Duke Inn to learn about business and dining etiquette and get answers to some of these questions from Michele Pollard Patrick, certified protocol officer.



Michele began the luncheon with an overview of etiquette during a business event. From entering the room, to greeting people, to choosing between different dining styles, to navigating the silverware, we soon learned that etiquette can be a complicated process. For instance, it was interesting to learn that a diner should never switch between styles of eating (e.g., eating with the fork tines turned up is American, turned down is Continental). Your silverware’s placement on the plate signals to the server whether you are taking a break or finished eating. You should always pass the salt and pepper together even if someone requested only one of them, because when the next person asks for salt or pepper, you know where both are. To establish trust, don’t bring up business right away when you sit down to dine.

Students also asked pertinent questions—like whether to tell someone if they have food in their teeth or how to get out of a conversation with an overly chatty person (to find out answers to these questions, you’ll have to sign up for the workshop. Just kidding. See below). Our questions made it clear that mundane situations can be a source of confusion and stress at a business event.



After the questions, we put what we learned into practice by engaging in a five-course meal. The first course was soba noodles, and the second was soup. The third was the entrée, the fourth the salad, and the fifth the dessert. It was fun to learn that although the American style of dining serves salad first, the Continental style serves salad before the dessert because the vinaigrette supposedly cleanses the palette.

Working through five courses takes stamina, but attending to other people during the process is especially tricky. You should always stay informed of how quickly and slowly everyone else is eating. You don’t want to be the one preventing the next course from being served. Also, select conversation topics that are interesting to your conversation partner, keep the conversation going, and engage in the conversation (rather than just smiling because you’re too busy keeping track of everyone else’s plate of food). It is a lot to take in. No wonder there are classes on business and dining etiquette. Good thing they’re very fun!

The answers to the first three dilemmas are:

  1. Stand to the side of the entrance first. Then, look around, pick a seat, and confidently move toward your seat. Don’t dawdle.
  2. Speak and make eye contact with anyone who is within earshot – this sounds straightforward and obvious, but you’d be surprised how rarely people do this. Never leave anyone within proximity out.
  3. Speak to the server discreetly. Tell them what happened and request a different entrée. Be discreet so the cougher doesn’t feel badly; it is, after all, proper etiquette to make people around you feel comfortable.

The answers to teeth food and chatty-people conundrums are:

  1. You should indeed discreetly and politely tell them about the food in their teeth, or signal to them by pointing at your own teeth.
  2. Gently tell the other person that you promised to speak with someone else. Getting a drink might work, but you risk the person following you.



Simone Tang
Simone Tang

Ph.D. student, Business

Simone Tang is a Ph.D. student in business who studies how morality and ideology impact judgments and decision-making. When she’s not PhDing, she is writing Yelp reviews. You can learn more on her website.