My colleague Terry Isner and I attended the PR News Platinum Awards ceremony in New York City last week and were proud to take away Honorable Mention in the media relations category—a category that included PR teams representing Dunkin’ Donuts, Hormel Foods and Samsung, among others. This is the event of the season for the international PR community and it's a great chance to network and rub elbows with the who’s who in the industry at a high-powered business luncheon.

As is customary with these types of soirées and many other law firm networking luncheons, social events, retreats and legal award ceremonies, the tables were already set to save time and limit interruptions from the wait staff during the presentations.

As a result, it looked like a dishwasher exploded onto the table in a confusing array of plates and glassware. It was difficult to tell which set-up belonged to whom. And that led to the incident.

My tablemate mistakenly sipped out of my water glass. Not the worst mistake in the world, but it was embarrassing. Business lunch etiquette makes a critical first impression, so here is a quick lesson on how to successfully navigate the tableware at a business luncheon or legal networking event:

  • The setup – A standard banquet set-up includes forks to the left of the plate, knives, spoons and special service items to the right.  The water glass is always above the knife on the right. Other glassware—red wine and white wine glasses—are always to the right of the water glass. The bread plate and bread knife are above the fork on the left.  If you see a broad-blade knife with your set-up, fish is mostly on the menu. A fish knife is a spatula-like knife used for separating fish from its skin and dividing it into manageable pieces that are easy to eat. 
  • Service – Food is always served from the left, cleared from the right.  If there is a basket of bread to be passed around the table, it is passed from left to right. Salt and pepper should be passed together, even if your tablemate only asks for the salt, for example.
  • At the end of the meal – Place your utensils at the 4 o'clock position on your plate. This is a signal to the waiter that you are finished and your plates can be cleared. Do not stack plates or place napkins on top of dishes and push the items away.

So, keep your napkin out of your collar and in your lap, and follow these simple rules on how to properly navigate a tablescape. You can focus on the conversation, close that deal and forever eliminate any table manner faux pas, including drinking out of my water glass.

For more tips on how to manage your reputation in public, in the media and online, contact Vivian Hood at