The Corporate Arbegna
Surviving the Corporate Dinner
After doing time in pea-sized cubicles, dropping your boss's dry cleaning and nervously
giggling at very un-amusing jokes, you have finally arrived! Now you get to have underlings
who you can order to pick out the raisins from your raisin muffin and hold a "Do not
disturb" sign while you enjoy a Swedish deep pore cleansing/mud facial and vacuuming in
Yep, the good life. But hold it, Sparky. There's one more hurdle to overcome before you earn
the right to sign off on $250,000-a-table company sponsorship for an ultra chic charity
chaired by Alan Greenspan. First you gotta survive the big corporate dinner with the
Chairman and CEO and his/her CHiffroch.
It's an "illil/eseye" moment, no doubt, when you get that invitation. But make no mistake
about it. You are being tested. Everyone is taking copious mental notes. Your every nuance is
being watched, your every faux pas being recorded in your bosses' minds. At some point you
gotta wing it, but don't plop yourself down at the table without a few grenades of your
Accepting… Usually dinner or power lunch invitations will be thrown your way at the last
moment. Let's say you were particularly useful at the executive committee meeting. More
than likely you will get a "Hey, entina, why don't you join us for the strategy dinner?" It is
not a rhetorical question, and, please, no megderder. ("Me? I am not worthy. Ere
Instead, answer firmly, "I would be delighted." Not, "When is it?" That shows you're out of
the loop. Forget what Nancy Reagan tried to inculcate in you and "just say yes". That saves
you from fiddling with your Palm Pilot looking for your calendar, while your boss starts to
think you are a nimrod. You can get the details (where, what time, attire etc.) later on.
Usually, the protocol is that you get a call from your boss's assistant giving you all the
information. In case you don't, make a quick call and find out. Talking to the assistant will
give you insight as to whether you should meet the party at the restaurant or if you could
bum a ride on the limo.
Very important: Unless you have a confirmed date with SELEDA's Qulibiew Mikael, attend the
dinner! Cancel the CHat arbosh with the Kasangis Crew; reschedule your weekly kitfo- and-
politics appointment. This is important.
Getting there…: If are invited to ride with the bosses, (and always wait to be invited) go to
their offices and go down to the car with them. Plans for transportation at the executive level
change very sporadically. ("Call a limo… no, let's walk… no, I'll drive… no, let's have so-
and-so drive.") If you are right there, you can be privy to the details.
As magnanimous as you might think it is, try not to offer to drive everyone. While you think
this might make you look like a hero, you're setting a trap for yourself. Your car might be too
small for the boss's lanky legs; it might seem too ostentatious ("Do I pay you this much?"),
too humble ("I can't be seen in that!"), too dirty, too this, too that… You don't need the
headache. You are already under a microscope. If you sense that there might not be enough
room, however, offer to drive yourself. "I'll be happy to meet you there." That's considerate.
More often than not your boss will look at you with relief, and, in a fit of graciousness, might
volunteer to ride with you.
If you are meeting at the restaurant, get there early and make sure your office is able to reach
you in case of any changes. Get precise directions. If you've never been to the restaurant, scan
out the dinning room, ask the maître d' where your table or private dining room is located,
and find out where the restroom is. It is always a good idea to look over at the menu. In fact,
if you have enough lead time, ask the restaurant to fax you a menu. Fancy restaurants
complicate their menus. Don't be intimidated.
Always wait for the rest of the party either at the bar or at the lobby. Never seated at the table.
Most good restaurants know VIPs, and they will be happy to alert you when your colleagues
Seating…: Location, location, location. Where you are seated makes a difference. It's not a
minor detail. Despite conventional wisdom, don't meshamat for a place right next to the big
Kahuna. You might be overstepping your boundary with other higher ups who can make
your life miserable, and it is very glaringly obsequious. Two people removed is always a good
distance. Close enough to have a conversation, but far enough to pretend you can't listen to
upper echelon gossip.
Try to sit next to someone you don't know. If you are in finance, seek out someone in
marketing. That way, you are also networking with other honchos. The trick is to make it
look like you have done this before. Avoid awkwardness that might intimate you don't want
to sit next to the dork in legal and that you are trying to be cozy-cozy with the cutie COO.
Being naturally graceful is key. Your Ethiopian-ness will serve you well here.
Ordering…: Most probably you will be starting off with cocktails while the boss (or
whomever is assigned) looks at the wine list. If this is a dinner engagement, it is perfectly
acceptable to go for hard liquor, although try to avoid anything "straight up". Even martinis.
No need to get sloshed before the party begins. So, take your Macallan with a splash of soda;
and your Bombay Sapphire with tonic. Avoid "teeny bopper" drinks such as margaritas or
any fruit daiquiris. You're not in Negril. If this is a power lunch, stay away from all liquor.
Despite what you read on Esquire or Details, the Martini Lunch is not back. Stick to
Pellegrino even if the bosses are shooting down tequilas.
Since you are being tested, someone might drop the wine list on your lap and tell you to order
the vino. Don't panic. And don't let them see you sweat. Wine is easier than you think. If you
have basic knowledge of it, it is a craft you can perfect. In almost all good restaurants, the
sommelier (wine steward) will be happy to help you choose wine. You can abdicate the task
to him, but here's a chance to look good. What's most important is that you do not come off
as a wine snob. Nothing's worse than a wine snob. A special place in hell is reserved for wine
Here's a simple guide to ordering vino: if there are four or more people at the table go ahead
and order one white and one red. Don't go to the trouble of polling the table for preferences.
White with appetizers and red for dinner is very acceptable. (If you choose any kind of blush
or a Rosè wine you are, by law, required to be shot on the spot. Besmeab! Besmeab!)
It doesn't matter how big your expense account is, don't choose wine over $100. At least not
unless the boss is hankering for a nifty Château Petrus ($600 +). One bottle is about five
glasses, so figure about 2-3 bottles of each kind for a table of six. Order at least two bottles of
each so that you don't run out in the middle of a pouring. It can get a little awkward if you
run out of wine before the boss is served, and you the snippety waiter trots back to you to ask
"Sir, you only ordered one bottle. Would you like another?" It makes you look boorish. A
good server will come to you discreetly when you are about to run out. Look around and see
if people are drinking wine before you order more. It will reflect badly on you if, at the end of
dinner, everyone's glass is full to the brim with expensive wine.
California makes fabulous wines in the $70-100 price range and they are almost all very
good. You can't go wrong with Groth, Jordan, Far Niente or Grgich Hills. To be on the safe
side, order a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon. But don't shy away from Sauvignon
Blancs, Merlots and Mertiages (different grapes). The trick is to not choose a bland wine, or
one that makes you see Tiyit fabrika after the second sip.
Avoid heavy French Burgundy's that almost always have to be decanted. (That's when the
sommelier, with much fanfare, pours out the wine into a carafe, leaving the sediments in the
wine bottle.) It's fun at first, but by the 3rd bottle it's… enough already! And too showy. By no
means shall you ask the sommelier to decant a 1997 bottle of California Cabernet. You'll
come off as a nitwit, and waiters might spit in your food for creating so much work for them.
Keep it simple.
Incidentally, it doesn't hurt to know about wine. It's not as intimidating or as stuffy as you
might think. When you start quoting appelation contrôlée laws and naming your children
Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Vougeot and Pommard, however, you gotta stop. Otherwise, go
The Food…: It's important to know your wait staff. The busboy/girl/person is the one
bringing you water and bread. The front waiter is the one taking your cocktail orders. You
already know the wine guy. The captain is the one with a fake French accent telling you
about four-oil infused truffles on the Steak au Poivre. The back waiter is the one clearing
your table and handing you the dessert menu. Try to figure out who is who. It won't do you
much good to poke the poor busboy/gal/person in the ribs to request that your filet mignon
be prepared Pittsburgh style (charred on top, raw in the middle).
Order reasonably. Don't go for the lobster. Try to gauge what other people are having. If you
are in a fine restaurant and in the midst of gourmands, you know to order an appetizer, a
salad and then your entrée. Don't try to be overly adventurous. If you've never had carpaccio,
this ain't the time to try it. (The raw egg in the middle might not make it feel quite like the
kitfo you imagined it to be.) Stick to simple, good food. As noted before, restaurants try to
complicate their foods. Don't sweat bullets when you hear adjectives like folded, rubbed,
married, spanked, spread and layered used to describe what you are about to ingest. Mostly, it
This is not dining with the Qess, so relax. Ask the captain questions if you need to know
something, or if you want to hear the specials again. But whatever you do, don't get into an
expansive discussion about the difference between Porcini and Pom Pom Blanc mushrooms.
Definitely says you need a new hobby.
Stay away from messy foods like pasta. Even the most careful diner almost always has to slurp
pasta, and yeech. Not a lovely sight. Also stay away from "high maintenance" foods such as
Dover Sole that might have to be de-boned tableside. The whole table will have to sit through
the whole ceremony, and that can be annoying.
Never, under penalty of having the chef hurl heavy Danish clogs at you, have your steak
cooked well done or ask for steak sauces. It screams out "unsophisticated, nay, geriba taste
palate". Go medium rare for meats, and rare for fish especially tuna.
The Conversation…: The rules are simple for standard polite conversation: avoid politics,
religion and sex. You need good communication skills to swerve conversation you find
uncomfortable. But don't shy from joining in if you feel your opinion will further the
dialogue. But speak to make a point, not because you feel you are withering into oblivion.
Have a few current event jokes handy, and if the audience is right, they can be on the blue
side, though not overtly. Stay away from gossip of any kind. ANY kind. Business talk only lasts
through appetizers and the first few bottles of wine, so you have to be ready to be charming
and intelligent and knowledgeable on other matters outside in-house matters. Travel is
usually a good topic. It is personal but not intrusive. As the new kid on the block, you might
be picked on. Take it with grace. Self deprecate when necessary, but stand firm and don't be
pushed around. Make sure you look everyone in the eyes. This is a test of whether you are a
yes person, or can stand your own ground.
By dessert everyone should be loosening their belts and polishing off the last of the wine. The
conversation might have gotten a little raunchier, but keep your composure even as the boss
is telling the table about a, ehem, "youthful indiscretion" that resulted in a mysterious rash.
(Just look up to the sky and say "igzihabariyaye" a hundred times. Ferenje's tongues get preternaturally loose after some liquor. Even if your colleague is telling you about intimate
details about divorce/extra martial affairs/therapy, avoid divulging anything about yourself.
The ferenje gene has better capacity to deal with yilugnta than ours. So, listen intently, but say zip about your l'il foot fetish. Again, Ethiopian reservedness will serve you well here.
Also, be aware that your boss just confiding in you about once having an orgy with ZZ Top
does not mean that you are now your boss's new best friend. It will have zero impact on your
working relationship. Again, the ferenje are different than us. They are ferenje. Don't harbor lofty thoughts about forging a new level of friendship just because you are privy to a few
details. When the check is paid, everything you heard will have to magically leave your
thought mehader. Never offer love, financial or car advice to an intoxicated co-worker.
Never. Nod sympathetically, look up to the sky, and, yep… igzihaberiyaye…
Dessert…: Monitor your alcohol intake because you might have to partake in after-dinner
drinks. This is the best part of corporate dinners: expensive cognac. Again, if you don't care
much for Courvoisier XO Imperial in a heated snifter with your espresso, go for Bailey's or
Kaluha. Leave the Irish coffee for middle management. This is also when you wind down the
dinner and assess its success. It is also time to chummy up with the boss who is probably sick
of the two executive VP's who had been chatting away incessantly. Mellow out, and talk
business. Not the heavy "who shall be fired" type business, but how much you enjoy working
at XYZ Corp., and how much you have grown. Let the personal side of you show without
getting all mushy. It's a good time to thank your boss for the invitation, and how much you
enjoyed the evening. Also a good time to secure an invitation to the next dinner. Be subtle
about it. Try saying, "Have you been to such-and-such restaurant? They have a wine cellar
which rivals Bordeaux."
If you've made a good impression, you will be asked to plan the next dinner…
And that, my friend, is a whole other mess. Happy dining!