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8 Etiquette Reminders for Dining Out with Friends and Clients

When ‘splitting the bill’ isn’t an even split, group dining can feel like competitive eating.

We’ve all been there. You’re out for dinner with a sizable group of friends. You order salad and a glass of house wine. They order lobster and Champagne. When the bill comes, you split it evenly. Then you go home and beat yourself up for subsidizing their extravagance. Next time, you vow, I’m ordering the lobster.

This situation takes the concept of competitive eating to a new level. Why scrimp on your own meal if you’ll be shelling out for theirs? Why feel taken advantage of, when you could, instead, feel sated? Do you suck it up, say something or avoid the situation if you know it’s coming?

I took those questions to Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and director of The Etiquette School of New York in Manhattan, who recently encountered a similar situation, herself.

Last year, Napier-Fitzpatrick was dining out with a group of six friends she’s known for nearly 20 years. Upon sitting down, one of the women in the group said to the waiter, “I would like to get a separate check.” As someone who doesn’t drink, the friend didn’t want to pay an equal amount to those who were drinking.

Napier-Fitzpatrick thought it was an odd request. Still, she understood. She, herself, only had one drink during the meal (others had more), and admits that when the check came, she was tempted to also ask to pay separately. “It was very hard for me not to say, ‘OK, I’ve only had one glass of wine, I’d like a separate check, too.’ But I didn’t. I didn’t.”

That’s because the proper protocol, when dining out with a group of friends, is to split things evenly. “When you go out to dinner with other people, that’s sort of your price of admittance, so to speak. Everybody shares the check equally,” she says.

If that’s continually a problem, it’s time to think of other solutions.

“If you know that your friends are big drinkers and big eaters and you’re not, maybe you shouldn’t be dining with them,” she says. “How many times does it take to learn that you’re feeling taken advantage of and they’re feeling like you’re cheap?”

She suggests setting up a lunch with one or two of them, rather than a dinner with a larger group. They’ll be more likely to eat and drink less.

In addition, Napier-Fitzpatrick shared the following advice for group dining:

When dining together, everyone should have the same number of courses.
This will pace the dinner properly. If you’re just planning on having the chicken, and the person to your left orders a salad or appetizer as well as the entrée, you should order a salad or appetizer, too.

Handle the check differently with clients vs. friends.
If you invite someone to a business lunch or dinner, you pay—that’s protocol. If they invite you, they pay. Among friends, however, the check should be split, or you can alternate paying each time you meet.

Everything in moderation.
Drinking and eating in moderation is the polite thing to do. Whether you’re with friends or clients, be mindful of how much you consume.

Follow the ‘rule of six’.
If you’re joining a large party (12 or more), you don’t have to wait for everyone to be served before you begin dining. The rule of six dictates that once six people have been served, you can begin eating. In smaller groups, you should wait for everyone to be served before you begin.

Send-backsies.
Let’s say you’re dining in a group and your fish or steak is undercooked, so you send it back. Everyone else is happy with his or her meal. Still, your dining companions shouldn’t start eating until you say, “Please, go ahead without me.”

If you’re in one-on-one situation, say, dining with a client, and the client sends his or her food back, you shouldn’t start eating until the client suggests you do so. Even then, you should eat very, very slowly or not at all. You want to make the client comfortable.

If dining with people you don’t know, introduce yourself and join in.
At weddings, banquets and other celebrations, there are often large tables and lots of empty chairs to choose from. It’s not uncommon to see islands of singles or couples separated by seas of chairs. Rather than isolating yourself, have the confidence to sit by someone you don’t know. Simply introduce yourself and ask if you can join them. The proper etiquette is to be socially savvy, and it will make for a far more interesting night than sitting solo.

Stash the electronics.
Most people know this, yet they don’t do it. All electronics should be put away during a meal, and only food and utensils belong on the table. Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re on call for any reason—work, a baby on the way, family emergency, etc.—simply inform your party before you sit down. Let them know that you may get an important call and put your phone on vibrate. If your phone rings, say excuse me and then leave the table to take the call in a location that’s more private.

To learn more about social etiquette, dining etiquette, corporate etiquette, university etiquette and other areas visit etiquette-ny.com.

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