The etiquette of business dining in France

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A nation known for its passion for food, it should come as no surprise that business dining in France is commonplace. But with restaurants offering varying levels of formality and an emphasis on good etiquette, it’s wise to follow a few simple rules and look to your host for guidance.

Seating arrangements

At French business meals the host will generally sit in the honoured position at the head of the table, with the most important guests seated first to the left and then to their right, while hosting couples will sit one at each end of the table.

If you are invited to dine at the house of a business associate or colleague, look to see if there are place cards on the table, as seating arrangements are usually predetermined. In both instances, wait for your host to indicate where you should sit unless it is totally clear.

Table Manners

Once seated and served you should wait for you host to say “Bon appetit!” before beginning your meal. Place settings in France can differ slightly to those elsewhere, so it’s important to be aware of what each utensil is intended for. As bread plates are rare, you will usually find a small knife placed above your main plate, or just slightly to the side for bread and butter. The bread is usually broken by hand and laid to the left of your plate. You will find a fork and spoon above your plate for dessert and your other cutlery should be used working from the outside inwards with one set for each course.

Separate glasses will be provided for water, white wine, red wine and champagne, with white wine served for fish courses and red wine for red meat. Your knife should remain in the right hand and your fork in the left and on finishing your meal they should be laid parallel to each other across the right side on the plate.

Other elements of good etiquette include keeping your hands visible above the table when not using utensils, folding, rather than cutting, of salad leaves and always passing dishes to your left.

In contrast to dining cultures in some other regions, it is polite to eat everything on your plate and you should not ask for seconds.

As business lunches and dinners are widespread in France, in many cases it is acceptable to discuss work matters at the meal, however, you should take your cue from your French associates. While most business meals take place in restaurants, if you are invited to a French house for dinner it is important you are punctual, calling ahead if you are likely to be any more than 10 minutes late.

Toasting and drinking

While the host will make the first toast, guests should offer a toast in return at some point during the meal, to show their gratitude.

The most common toasts when dining in France are “à votre santé” (to you health), or its shorter form “Santé!” If you require another drink during the meal you should ensure your glass is less than half full and it will usually be refilled.

The bill

Whoever has arranged the business meal will usually pick up the bill, although other circumstances, such as rank, may come into play. It is customary for restaurants to add a service charge of 10 to 15 per cent to your bill.

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