Dining Tips with American Clients and Colleagues

Posted On: June 27, 2015

Do you wonder what to talk about when going out to eat with your US colleagues? Maybe what you will eat or how you will place your order? Or, who pays or how much to leave as a tip? Or, if it’s happy hour or dinner, how to handle the question of alcohol? Read on for tips on this plus much more! 

Restaurant etiquette in the USA.

Do we go for lunch or dinner?
In most cases lunch will be the preferred option. Dinner is infrequent. Occasionally, expect to be asked for happy hour, depending on the company or team.

What time would lunch or dinner be?
Lunch – 11:30 (to eat out of the office), 12 or 12:30 to eat inside the office. Usually finish by 1.
Happy Hour – Just after work finishes, anytime between 5-7
Dinner – between start between 7-8 end by 9 or 9:30 latest (regional differences may apply) 

To learn more about meal times in the US, click here.

What should I expect to eat?
I always suggest to ask about the eateries your colleagues frequent, look them up on Google and study their menus in advance. If you don’t get a chance, this gives you a good opportunity to make small talk at the restaurant. I suggest to ask them these questions:

  • “What do you like to eat here?”
  • “What do you normally order here?”
  • “What is this restaurant known for?” (India: “What are the famous dishes here?”)

Use these questions as a basis for small talk. They may not suggest any dish you like or are interested in. That’s ok. Use this as an opportunity to ask questions about the menu and learn about the food in that restaurant. American menus can be long and confusing, even for locals. Find examples of American menus at this link.

What should I order?
Well, that’s a good question. If they are paying, do ask them what they usually order. Look at the price of that option on the menu. I always suggest to order something of a lower price than what your client or colleagues likes or orders. Or, if you don’t know that information, study the menu and look for the medium priced food option. Do not go for the most expensive option. If you go for the least expensive, that’s not bad, but it’s not necessary also. Also keep in mind if you are paying that if you order the most expensive thing on the menu, it may give your colleagues the feeling they can also order the most expensive thing. But if you are paying and you choose the least expensive thing on the menu that will make you look cheap, and that’s not good. It’s ideal to default to the items of medium price range. 

Who pays for lunch when going out with colleagues?
Now we get to the meat and potatoes of the discussion! For normal work situations, this can be tricky. Think about what happens in your office in India. You may also ask your colleagues to join you for lunch, but that doesn’t always mean you pay, and vise versa. Maybe the first one or two outings will be tricky. If you aren’t sure, take liberty to order first and ask the waitress for ‘separate checks please.’ It is nice to treat them at least once, maybe the first time. In the case you want to treat, when ordering, mention to your colleague something like, “As this is our first lunch, this is on me.” “On me” is the way of saying “I’ll treat you today.” 

And, if you get confused, don’t worry too much. Americans also get confused by this. It’s confusing depending on the personalities of the people, our assumptions and other factors. This clip is from a US TV show. One of the Friends recently got a new job, so they have decided to go out to a very expensive restaurant to celebrate. As they did not talk about who will pay for the outing ahead, a few friends are nervous because they recently lost their job and avoid ordering expensive items. The outcome is quite funny. Take a look.

What do I do if I find myself in such a situation as in the video?

It may happen. It happens to a lot of people. It’s ok. It’s ok to blame it on your newness to the US or learning American culture. An apology goes a long way – a verbal apology of “I’m sorry, as I am new to the US, I am just learning how things work here, it’s different than India.”

Your colleague will be relieved that you acknowledge it, and it may open discussion about US or local culture where you can learn something that will be very helpful in the long term. And, in the US, your colleagues shouldn’t tell you the wrong thing to tease you to be friendly with you. They should advise you on the correct etiquette tips to help you be comfortable and appropriate in and around your colleagues and counterparts. 

What if I am a vegetarian?
Ask your colleague or the waitress what vegetarian options are available. In the US many soups and other dishes may have meat based broth. Ask about the broth if you are ordering soup. Many restaurants will adjust a menu item to remove meat or replace meat with a veggie burger or vegetables. Ask your server about it.

What fork do I use?
In the US, most restaurants are informal in their place settings. In some casual restaurants, there is one spoon, fork and knife wrapped in a napkin. The most important thing to try to learn in advance is how to cut meat with a knife and a fork as meat is usually served in large pieces in the US. Also, avoid ordering spaghetti and sauce as it can get messy. There are many comedy programs in the US that make fun of this. The video in this post will give an overview of some dining etiquette that you can keep in mind.  (Image credit: Video still)

Drinking at work in the U.S.A.

What if I don’t drink alcohol?
Well, in most cases people do not drink alcohol for lunch. I would avoid that at all costs in any case. If they drink during the day, I’d respond with, “Sorry, I prefer not to drink during the work day.”
If it’s happy hour or dinner, use religion as an excuse if you are a teetollar, “Sorry, it’s against my religion.” No one will touch that. But, if you just say, “No not today” it is possible they may tease you to drink. This is not to be mean, but it’s something like what would happen in India when you meet a new group of friends, to be “friendly” or “a part of the group” they may encourage you to do something to be a part of the group. It’s no different, only different people!

Note, the image in this post is of what is considered a ‘girlie drink.’ Brightly colored drinks are for women while dark colored are for men or considered ‘manly.’ Find out what your colleagues like to drink and see if you want to try that out. 

What is the drinking etiquette?
Normally, at training programs, I ask the Indians who have gone to the US to describe the drinking behavior of their colleagues. Normally, they say something like this, “They are not drinking to get high. They drink a little, talk to others, eat snacks, then drink some more.” This is called social drinking. Drinking to get drunk with colleagues is not common for colleagues-only groups. I would also not suggest it as we do things we don’t remember when we get drunk, and this can cause problems. Drinking in this manner is done during happy hour and during dinner outings. 

Are the topics discussed different during different meals?
For normal day to day lunch outings, it’s mostly small talk – either non-personal non-professional small talk about yourself or the happenings of your life. If you are more friendly with the person, they may talk about family. Also, small talk about work may be discussed, but it’s not a business meeting. Happy hour and dinner are more about small talk. If it’s happy hour, sports may be a topic of discussion. If it’s happy hour, it’s also a good chance to relax and learn some more idioms or local phrases.

What do I wear?
For lunch, obviously whatever you are wearing to work is fine. For happy hour, if you leave directly from the office to the bar or restaurant, then you will be wearing your work clothes. For dinner, you could go home and change to something more casual. Do ask your colleagues if the restaurant you are going to has a dress code. Usually restaurants in the US with a dress code are really expensive. I suggest business casual for the first dinner outing. Observe what your colleagues are wearing and for future dinner outings try to mimic that if it suits the occasion.

Paying the bill and tips

“How do I get the waiter’s attention to pay the bill?” This has been a common question in training programs in India. In some restaurants in India, it’s hard to get the attention of the waiter, I think that’s why this question is asked. What not to do – do not call out their name or say anything loudly to catch their attention. Normally, in most restaurants good customer service includes the waiter checking on you by coming to your table every 15 minutes or so. As you begin to wrap up the meal, the waiter may leave the bill on your table without you asking. However, if this doesn’t happen or the restaurant is very busy, try to make eye contact with the waiter and a sign with your hand as if you are signing a check. That should be enough. If the person walks by your table, you can say ‘excuse me’ in a low tone to get their attention if they did not make eye contact with you. To learn the different ways to say and use ‘excuse me,’ watch the video in this post.

Note: In most U.S. states the image to the right is referred to as a ‘check’ or a ‘bill.’ However in the upper midwest (Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, etc.), I have heard this referred to as a ‘ticket.’ 

How much should I tip?
Tips are paid because in most states wait staff make less than minimum wage. Federal minimum wage is $7.75 an hour. Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington are the only states paying the federal minimum wage to wait staff. The lowest hourly rate is $2.13, in the following states: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Employees working these jobs expect customers to leave them tips. So how much do you leave as a tip? Anywhere between 10 and 20% of the total before taxes. If in doubt, make some small talk about it with your colleagues. Again, it’s ok to mention you are not familiar with tipping as in India it’s not so common. This can also open up the conversation to asking about where all in the local area it’s appropriate to tip. 

Any other tips about going out to eat with your colleagues?
As an expat professional in the US, do you have any other tips or experiences to share that can help the readers of this blog? If so, please share them in the comments section below. Thank you.

Jennifer Kumar facilitates cross-cultural business understanding for international assignees to the US. Learn more by viewing the US Culture Training Finishing School. Contact Jennifer for more information on your team’s training needs. 

Related Posts:
Restaurant Etiquette and Mannerisms in the USA 
Ordering at American Fast Food Restaurants 
Eating with hands in the US -Yay or Nay?



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