Avoiding Headaches ~ How to Handle Alcohol in Business Situations

A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What ever happened to the three-martini lunch? Whether it was the changes in the IRS business deductions, the health craze of the 80's or the recession of the early 90's, the three-martini lunch has virtually disappeared. Yet alcohol is still part of many business interactions. Knowing how to conduct yourself well around alcohol is integral to a polished professional image. Picture this, you are out at a lovely restaurant with a rather important client. The waiter approaches your table and asks, "Would you care for a drink?" You freeze. A drink? Does he mean something alcoholic? Should I just get a soda? What if the client wants a scotch? Take a deep breath. Here are some tips on handling alcohol in business, as well as social, situations.

Follow the Leader ~ When unsure of how alcohol will be handled, take a cue from those at your table. If the boss, client or interviewer orders a drink, then you should follow suit. If you are hosting the event and the waiter asks if you would like a drink, defer to your guest with "What would you like?" You are then able to order in kind. If you are hosting the meal, you also have the option of speaking with the waitstaff in advance to instruct them as to which drinks you prefer to offer.

Another Round ~ If someone buys you a drink when you are out on the town, it is appropriate for you to reciprocate. If not during this interaction, then the next time you go out together. You should let the person know with a comment like "The next round of drinks are on me."

This Versus That ~ While it is commonly understood that a mixed drink, a beer or a glass of wine all have approximately the same alcohol content, you should consider your surroundings before choosing a beverage. In general, a glass of wine is a safe bet. Consider what the other people in your party are drinking and choose a similar drink. Please note that I did not mention shots. Shots are appropriate in a business setting only in the most unusual of circumstances.

Everyone's a Lefty ~ When holding a drink at a cocktail party, be sure to use your left hand. This leaves your right hand free to shake other people' s hands. In addition, your right hand will stay dry since most cold drinks tend to "sweat" leaving your hand moist and clammy.

Enough is Enough ~ No matter how well you think you hold your liquor, I recommend limiting yourself to one drink when in a business setting. Remember, you are a professional. Nothing dispels a professional image like slurring one's words, losing one's balance, or saying something inappropriate. Save the celebrating for non-business buddies.

When in Doubt, Don't ~ When you are not sure if the other people at the gathering will be drinking, play it safe and order something non-alcoholic.

Tiny Tastes ~ Take the time to educate yourself in the world of wines. Many liquor stores offer regular wine tasting seminars. Or, a wine appreciation course through your local adult education program is a great way to learn about the wide variety of wines available. This is also a great way to meet new people.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I am an avid teetotaler. What do I do when someone offers me a drink?

A: This situation arises for a wide range of reasons including diets, medical conditions, alcoholic recovery, religious restrictions, or distaste for alcohol. No matter the reason, you should never feel obligated to do something you would rather not. You should not feel a need to offer any explanation, merely order something you would enjoy drinking. Ginger ale, tonic with a twist of lime, cranberry juice or a soft drink are all appropriate beverage alternatives. If someone is bold enough to ask you why you are not drinking alcohol, you can respond with "I much prefer this right now." Then move the conversation spotlight off of you and onto another topic, "Have you eaten here before? It smells wonderful!"

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I have recently become engaged. I am sure there will be many occasions for toasting in the future. What should I do?

A: Congratulations on your engagement! When you are the recipient of a toast, you sit, smile and then thank the person who toasted you. You should never drink a toast to yourself as it is seen as an agreement to how wonderful you are. If you would like a sip of your drink, you can return the toast by praising and thanking the person who toasted you. A quick tip on toasts: they should be short and sweet, and when possible, practiced in advance.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ Later this month I will be traveling to Europe for a series of business meetings. I have been told that drinks are a big part of signing the deal there. What should I know before I go?

A: You are very perceptive to inquire about the cultural norms prior to arriving in a foreign country. Speak with colleagues and friends, especially those in your company, who have traveled to the country previously. Research the specific countries you will be visiting. You will need to be very aware of your surroundings because the customs vary widely from country to country. For example, in France, wine is the drink of choice and is consumed with the meal; whereas in Germany, drinks may be offered prior to the meal. A wonderful resource is the book "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands", which covers over 60 countries.