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etiquette scholar / dining etiquette / business dining etiquette / talking business

Talking Business at the Dinner Table

when to discuss business, essential conversational skills, knowing your audience, starting a conversation, small talk subjects, conversation stoppers, responses to rudeness, monitoring conversations, maintaining confidentiality

Not discussing business at a business lunch is not necessarily congenial; it is a waste of time and may put off a busy, organized person.

when to discuss business

Generally, the host initiates the business discussion. Business, if not urgent, is often discussed toward the end of the meal or over coffee. Don't wait too long, though, or you won't have time to accomplish your objective.

  • If you are the junior member of a party, don't dominate the discussion, but make comments and ask questions.
  • When the table isn't involved in a general discussion, be a good conversationalist with the people seated on either side of you.
  • If you are the host, it's your job to steer the conversation, to suggest topics for discussion, and to make sure that everyone at the table is given the opportunity to be part of the general conversation.

essential conversational skills

A good conversationalist has many qualities.

  • she is knowledgeable about a variety of topics
  • has a sense of humor that enables her to entertain others
  • she can laugh at herself
  • she has many interests and is able to vary conversation topics to fit the person or audience she is speaking to
  • a good conversationalist never talks down to her listeners
  • she is also a very good listener and is truly interested in what others have to say

Listening is probably the most important quality. The ability to listen to others even when we're bored or uninterested is the greatest skill we can develop. Listen attentively to all information. It will amaze you how many times it will be information you will need in the future.

Being able to talk about a variety of topics, being sensitive to others, having an assortment of interests, and carefully listening to what others are saying and are interested in will enable you to come up with many appropriate dinner table conversation topics.

knowing your audience

Consider your guests, clients, or audience.

  • If you're discussing business over dinner with colleagues, then you may need to make small talk and discuss trivial matters for about a half an hour before business dominates the remainder of the conversation.
  • If business is the reason for the hour long lunch, then stick to business.
  • The conversations at dinner parties in people's homes and at restaurants vary widely, depending upon the nature of the guests and the reason for the dinner.

starting a conversation

  1. One good place to start is to think of common interests.
  2. If the other guests are people you see occasionally or associate with regularly, you can ask about recent developments in their lives or about what they've been doing since you last spoke.
  3. If you're going to be meeting many people at the dinner for the first time, get ready to make small talk.

small talk subjects

Small talk can be a life saver in many situations. It fills the voids in conversations, helps ease tense moments, sets others at ease, and helps us become acquainted with others. There are two ways to make initiating small talk a little easier.

  1. The first is to be well-informed, as all good conversationalists are. This means being able to discuss topics such as current best-selling books, news events, famous people, fitness crazes, medical and technological advances, travel, and sports. These are all appropriate small talk subjects.
  2. The second way to ease into small talk is by asking others about themselves, their family, work, or hobby. If you know one of your guests or the host is particularly knowledgeable about wines or has wines as a hobby, you might steer conversation to that area.

conversation stoppers

Asking a person generally about himself is acceptable. However, asking very personal or intimate questions is off-limits. Do not ask about:

  • religious beliefs
  • financial situation
  • terminal illness or any illness
  • details about a divorce or an affair
  • someone's weight, height, shoe size, age or mental health.

Exceptions are people who are best friends or who are absolutely comfortable discussing these subjects with one another.

Also avoid:

  • harmful gossip; and
  • telling racial, ethnic, and sexually oriented jokes.

You never know who's going to be offended by them even if they don't admit it or show it. Avoid issues that have been overly discussed and are no longer interesting to the majority of people.

Leave money matters at home.

Don't bring up strongly debatable and controversial issues if you don't know how the other person feels about them. Avoid discussing:

  • abortion
  • women's rights
  • the rights of homosexuals

responses to rudeness

If you are asked a rude question or are the recipient of a tactless comment:

  • do not respond to or acknowledge the question or comment
  • reply in a very vague manner or give them no answer at all
  • say that you don't want to discuss an issue

monitoring conversations

Your job as the host includes mediating conversations if the need arises;

  • switch to a lighter topic;
  • end the chitchat and get on to business;
  • make sure everyone is introduced to everyone else; and
  • make sure that everyone is involved in conversation.

You don't want to leave one or two people out of a conversation because they are shy or unfamiliar with the topic being discussed. Include them in a conversation by starting it with something you know they are involved or interested in.

maintaining confidentiality

With the close proximity of tables in many restaurants today, check around to see who is near. Confidentiality is important. It is wise not to discuss anything that may be even slightly confidential when dining out in a restaurant. Also, be conscious of your voice level and speak softly.

Put aside any shoptalk of the critical or confidential kind. It can be tempting to relax when you're outside the office, but remember to keep your professional demeanor. A slip of the tongue can cause you problems-plus you never know who might overhear.

Related:

Conversation at the Dinner Table


- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

If you find any typographical errors, inaccuracies, or inconsistencies, or if you just have something to add, please email us.