Posted by:
Sabrina Mehra

Sabrina Mehra

December 22, 2014

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Business Meals: Who Pays?

From instant messaging to Bluetooth phones and every trend in between, technology has transformed how humans connect with each other. But until the wunderkinds in Silicon Valley come up with tech-based substitutes for every single human sense, there’s still no replacement for good old-fashioned face-to-face communication. And in the competitive work world—where relationships make or break careers—the best chats happen over food. Yes, breaking bread with a bigwig can spell great things for your career. But make a wrong move when the waiter brings the bill, and you can just as easily leave a sour taste.

You might think it’s pointless to worry about who pays for what, especially when your boss takes home a bigger paycheck than you. But you’d be wrong. When a boss or a bigwig offers you some face time or accepts your invitation for an informational interview, you’re gifted with the priceless opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack. And because impressions are built on more than wit and charm alone, your reaction to the bill can either confirm or nullify whatever impression you’ve served up during the meal. With stakes that high, get your payment strategy in place before you walk into the restaurant.

Always offer to pay. No question here: If you’ve asked for the meal, or you’re getting some information out of it, firmly insist that the meal is on you. Never assume that the other party will whip out their wallet when the bill comes (even ridiculously wealthy people can be stingy!). If your dining partner protests, and you sense that the debate could get combative, then definitely acquiesce to them. At the end of the meal, you want your companion to leave knowing just how fabulous you are, so don’t bicker needlessly just because you want to pay.

Know your budget. Since you’re picking up the tab, avoid showboating with a pricey meal at the city’s finest steak house. If you’re on a strict budget but require get-to-know-you time, suggest breakfast or lunch instead of dinner, and have a few affordable suggestions on hand when the invitation is made. While this meal might be an investment in your career, it’s not worth sinking into debt over. Think of the impression you’ll make when the waiter returns to cut your declined credit card in two.

Keep the conversation professional, no matter how casual the venue. Sure, it’s only bagels and coffee, but just because the menu is low-key doesn’t mean the conversation should be completely off-the-cuff. Don’t read from a script, but definitely prepare a mental checklist of conversation points you’d like to hit. People love talking about themselves, so ask plenty of intelligent, researched questions and avoid dominating the conversation with personal anecdotes and bragging. If you’re sitting down for an informational interview, take notes.

Follow-up with a thank you note. Even if you did pay the bill, your dining partner was kind enough to give you some of their valuable time, and you need to show your appreciation for it. In lieu of e-mail, send a handwritten note on nice stationery. It’s a simple way to show you’ve got serious class.