The etiquette of business meetings in cafés

Irmas Kalniņa

Where I live and work in a busy part of Rīga, there is are so many choices of places to have coffee. I can choose from among many atmospheres: cosy and homey, modern and urban, minimalist and office-like, or a chain coffee shop with brand décor.

Coffee meeting!
Discussing business with clients at Rocket Bean.

Normally, we go to chat with friends, for meetings with clients or associates, for dates, or simply to get a take-out coffee on the way to work. What people might not realise during business meetings is that most other patrons are doing exactly that. This gives rise to several faux pas when it comes to meeting up for coffee in a professional capacity in an otherwise-social milieu. Even more so, there are ways we might behave in a café around our peers that we should reconsider when in a business setting.

What's one to do to maintain professionalism?

There are plenty of common sense meausres, just to get started. For instance, tipping is still an expectation of patrons regardless of whether they're in a social or professional setting, so make sure you're aware of the local rules! (In Latvia, we round up the bill and the waiter gets the remainder.) While many patrons Instagram their food, this is not acceptable behaviour during a professional meeting.

Some less common measures relate to the differences between social and professional etiquette. With our friends, we might return food if it doesn't meet our standards or liking. In a professional setting, however, this might send a negative message to your partner.

What are some general guidelines?

Buy something!
It’s discourteous to come to a coffee meeting not having purchased anything. If you’re taking a table, or taking up space, it’s polite to order something. That doesn’t include a glass of water.
Be clear on who pays.
If you are inviting someone for coffee and the key words are I’d like to invite you for coffee… then you must pay. A casual let’s meet for coffee… may indicate that each pays separately unless you feel since you initiated the idea—then you can pay if you wish! Otherwise, assume everyone pays for their own drink; although there’s nothing wrong with offering to pay for your friend’s order (and vice versa). Note that this changes strongly depending on locale: in many regional business cultures, the higher ranking attendee will automatically be obliged to pay.
Ask your friend or business partner where they’d prefer to sit. Don’t assume that anywhere is fine; some people don’t like to sit on hard chairs and some prefer a couch. Some people don’t like sitting next to windows; others don’t like stools or sitting outside.
 If they say that it doesn’t matter, then choose a spot yourself, but let them feel comfortable in changing the seating arrangements if they choose.
Arrive on time
Even a simple coffee meeting demands the respect of the other person’s time. As they say, time is money when it comes to business! (Depending on the arrangement, you literally may be paying for your partner's time!)
Confirm the address
There’s a cafe on every corner of many regions—make sure you’ve got the right one. In my neighbourhood, for example, there are 2 chain coffee shops, with another few around the corner by the same names. I really have to specify which one!
If you want to leave a good impression on the person you’re meeting with, be sure to be courteous to the barista, give your order in an efficient manner (decide what you want before you get to the counter!), and leave a tip.
Clean-up (bussing your own table)
Usually, it is the responsibility of the café to clean up—but not always! Remember, your partner may have an eye on your professionalism, and keeping a tidy workspace may be significant to them.
Business dress code
If it’s a business meeting, dress the part. It’s not your living room. You’re still a representative of the company. If you find yourself thinking that your professional dress won't fit in where you plan on meeting, you may want to choose a more conservative venue!
Wait for others
Whether it’s a group or an individual, it’s polite to wait for them to show up before ordering. Otherwise it looks like you’re there for the coffee or the eating. You're not! A business meeting is about business—not coffee.
Be Discreet
In terms of business meetings, anything of a confidential nature may be heard by others in the coffee shop. If you must, speak in euphemisms or code, or generalities, until you get back to the real office. Some professions are even obligated to maintain confidentality, so your partner may be uncomfortable speaking about certain matters regardless of your own comfort level. And if a reporter just might happen to be at the next table…

And what should we avoid?

Please don’t check your email or answer your phone during a coffee meeting. It’s rude! It’s like putting someone on hold or call-waiting. The impression is that the person who you were with first is of less importance. However, if it really is urgent: answer it with an apology to your friend.
 Don’t check your watch or phone for the time either—don’t make it look as though you have somewhere more important to be. This may also be a signal that the other person is boring and you want to demonstrate with body language your boredom. If you have a strict deadline, set a discreet alarm on your phone. Turn the ringer off. In fact, if it’s on buzz, turn that off too. You don’t want someone hearing the ringer or a buzz while you talk. It’s highly distracting!
Don’t take up a chair with your coat (or your bag) if it’s a packed coffee shop. It means an awkward conversation from another patron to ask if they can use the seat you’re obviously taking up unnecessary space.
 Also, unless you absolutely need to sit in a certain place, don’t squat an entire table and several chairs while waiting for your meetings partners to arrive if the place is busy. You can’t spread out like you would in a conference room—to the cafés, you're just another patron.
What to order
If your friend or business contact is paying for your drink, don’t order the costliest thing on the menu. Keep it simple and inexpensive. Remember: you're here for business, not the food!
Do not take up more time than what is reasonable. If no time window for the meeting was predetermined, usually a rule of thumb is one hour. That’s equivalent to a lunch break. If there’s still urgent business to discuss after that, ask for a specific amount of time to wrap things up. Don’t assume they can offer you as much time as you’d like.
Table manners
This is my favourite topic, but I'll keep it short... Do not play with the rim of your cup, nor chew on it; do not crush the cup down like it’s a soda can; don’t use the stir stick between your teeth like a tooth pick; and don’t tap your fingers on the table. Most of all, avoid that clankety-clank stir sound when the spoon stirs the coffee cup. Take the spoon out of the cup when drinking. Sip your coffee soundlessly and try not to...
You don’t want to loiter! If there are people waiting for a table or a chair, wrap up the meeting so others can enjoy being able to sit down. An extended stay an abuse of the shop’s resources. If there is Wi-Fi and the design of the café is welcoming to business people, then perhaps there is no time restraint. Ask beforehand! Everybody in your meeting will be embarrassed if the waiter or barista needs to remind you of their usage policies.

If you're not sure if your venue, call ahead and ask frankly about their policies. Wi-fi, table space, extra chairs, electrical outlets... chances are they deal with this on a regular basis. Be courteous!

We begin 2016 with fresh inspiration and a challenging new goal: to write Latvia’s first blog about etiquette! My goal is to write this blog in an informal way, with humour and examples from real life situations. I wish to share my experiences, observations, and opinions not only in these blog articles but also in my Facebook postings. Most of all, I want to help those who want to help themselves in getting the most out of their daily relationships with friends, family, colleagues, and clients.
Learn more at Irma Kalnina Consulting!

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