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This article about business dining etiquette originally appeared in the Tulsa World on May 19, 2011.

The business lunch is more than a meal. It’s a time when business relationships are developed and strengthened.

In today’s more casual business environment, however, employees may have the right job skills but may be at a loss as to how to act when conducting business at a restaurant or a formal dinner.

In fact, according to a recent report from the Protocol School of Washington, poor dining skills are one of the top five business etiquette mistakes that professionals make. That’s why mastering the art of business dining adds to the competitive edge in today’s business arena.

A grasp of basic dining manners and etiquette is critical so that you will know how to handle yourself with confidence as a host or guest in any business dining setting. How you conduct yourself at the dining table gives potential clients and customers a sense of how you will handle their business.

A lack of competence at the table suggests lack of competence in other areas. Although it’s not a cardinal sin if you forget to pass the salt and pepper together, inhaling your food like you’re famished, licking your fingers or using your fingers to push peas onto your fork isn’t impressive.

The following dining tips are crucial for professional success.

Extending the invitation: The person who issues the invitation is the host and is expected to pay for the meal. It’s more personal to extend the invitation by phone, not email. Select a restaurant that’s convenient to your guest and preferably one where you are known. This is not the time to try the newest hot spot.

Also, indicate the purpose of the meeting so your guest can come prepared. Make a reservation and confirm with the restaurant and your guest the day before.

Arriving: If you’re the host of a business lunch, let the guest know where to meet: at the entry or at the table. Meeting at the table is preferred. This allows you to arrive early to finalize any details, such as making sure you’ve secured a good table conducive for conversation and having your credit card swiped so that a bill is not presented at the table.

When the guest arrives, stand, shake hands and indicate to the guest where to sit. The guest should have the best seat, the one facing into the restaurant or with a scenic window view. Never place keys, folders or a cellphone on the table.

Ordering and eating: After a few minutes of small talk, order beverages and look over the menu. As host, offer entrée suggestions, including higher priced items, so your guest will know what price range is acceptable.

Order carefully: You don’t want to be wrestling with messy ribs, spaghetti or French onion soup instead of talking to your client. Guests order first, the host last. But, the host begins eating first; the guests follow.

Understanding the place setting: The bread plate and salad will always be on the left of the place setting. Water and wine glasses are to the right.

Use a knife and fork to cut only one piece of food at a time. And once a piece of silverware has been used, it should never touch the table again. Place it across the plate in a 10 o’clock position.

Buttering your bread: The way you butter your bread is a subtle indicator of good versus poor table manners. Break, don’t cut the roll. Don’t make a butter sandwich. Instead, tear off one bite-size piece at a time and butter it on the bread plate.

Conversing: The best way to engage in conversation while eating is to take small bites. And never talk with food in your mouth.

At a business breakfast or lunch, wait until the orders are taken before you “talk business.” The pace of a dinner is more leisurely, and you may not talk business until the main course is cleared.

Starting with these suggestions will go a long way in making a favorable impression of you – and your company.