Ins and outs of invitations

by Alex Lai

This is the fourth article of a special series on personal branding – Table manner

Finding your place at the dining table is an art to be mastered

Danny Lai
executive assistant manager, guest relations
Mandarin Oriental HK
All photos courtesy of HKET

Having a meal with colleagues or clients runs much deeper than simply satisfying everyone's hunger. It can make or break deals, reputations and even businesses. According to Danny Lai, executive assistant manager, guest relations, Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, on these occasions there are certain things to keep in mind.


Accepting or turning down an invitation to lunch or dinner should be done as soon as possible, regardless of whether the invitation was written or verbal. In the case of multiple invitations to events falling into the same time slot, Mr Lai suggests prioritising and choosing the most important. "Or if you decide you can still attend both events, ring the host of the first beforehand and perhaps tell him or her you will be pleased to come along for a cocktail drink but unfortunately you will have to leave early. By doing this you show that you value your invitation," he says.

Enquiring about the guest list is generally impolite, though wanting further details about things like the dress code and event purpose is allowed and best done before the event. Mr Lai adds that those lucky enough to have a secretary can ask him or her to call, as people expect to tell secretaries this kind of information.

The same applies to a pre-arranged seating plan. "Do not change the seats on the spot. If you are concerned about it, deal with it beforehand. Again, if you can, have your secretary call and try to negotiate something more appropriate," Mr Lai says.

Keep your poise

Dining etiquette can leave a lasting impression so it is best to make this a positive one. Mr Lai suggests remembering a few important rules:

  • Sit up straight
  • Don't put too much food in your mouth at one time
  • Don't make excessive noise when chewing
  • Don't pick your teeth — with a finger, toothpick or your tongue — at the table or anywhere in public

When choosing a dish, he advises, "It would be wise not to order spring chicken or bony fish, which require a lot of effort to consume. In other words, try not to put anything into your mouth that will have to be taken back out."

At the same time, it is not a must to finish everything on a plate, especially when portions are large. "With uneaten food, a hospitable host might ask if all is to your liking, and you can simply say politely that you have a small appetite. Or you can specify that you want a small portion when ordering," Mr Lai says.

Drinking water throughout a meal should not cause any problems, Mr Lai says, unless attending a wine dinner in which case he suggests that perhaps attending should be reconsidered. "Also, drinking when you have food in your mouth should be avoided at all costs," he adds. "It can definitely cause some level of embarrassment."

Dinner talk

Interesting conversations make dining a pleasant experience for all guests but starting them with strangers can be daunting. "To break the ice, try starting a conversation by discussing current affairs or news headlines, or even compliment someone on their outfit," Mr Lai says.

Once a dialogue has begun it is important to keep it civil and sophisticated. "Obviously we must avoid backstabbing or gossiping behind people's backs," he says. Moreover, topics that are not interesting or spoil the pleasant mood should be avoided. "If a topic becomes repetitive or boring try shifting the focus but never say or joke about anything vulgar."

Though events may be with business friends or acquaintances, conversations about business are generally discouraged. "Business talks can be done at 'power breakfasts'. At all other social events, keeping the topics casual is the key," he says.

Toasting is a popular way to show appreciation for the host or guest of honour but they can be overdone. If one is required, Mr Lai recommends, "It's best to propose a toast when the main course comes, by which time all the guests should have arrived."

A common contemporary dilemma is whether or not to use a mobile phone during a meal and there are as yet no clear rules that govern all occasions. Mr Lai advises erring on the side of caution. "We often offend others by conducting unnecessary mobile phone calls at dinner gatherings, whether at a casual or more formal restaurant. It depends on the situation but for fine-dining restaurants especially, it is better ask if mobile phones are allowed and if not you can ask the people at the reception to take any urgent calls that you are expecting."

What makes a good guest

  • RSVP promptly
  • Be punctual and observe dress codes
  • Changing pre-arranged seats at the location is disrespectful to the host and other guests
  • Don't talk with your mouth full
  • Keep conversations upbeat
  • Make eye contact when talking and listening to people

Taken from Career Times 27 July 2007
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