is it rude not to eat at a business lunch?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding a debate I recently had with a friend regarding a business lunch or dinner.

I work as a fundraiser (primarily with donations from foreign governments), and a number of my meetings end up being held out of the office in cafes/restaurants. As I work for a local organization and am mostly dealing with embassy staff, the power dynamic is such that often the check is picked up by the person I’m meeting with, but not always. My office does not pay for any of this, but as this mostly is a bill for a coffee, I consider it in the same way that for my job I need to invest in a more professional woredrobe than my colleagues.

Recently, I was invited to a business lunch at a restaurant where I am really hoping I don’t have to pay for myself, as it is on the expensive side. It’s not at a four star New York City restaurant price that would truly be beyond my budget, but it’s more than I’d want to spend on lunch and also, as the restaurant is in a hotel, it falls into the category of over-priced hotel food.

I was complaining a bit to a friend about perhaps having to buy myself lunch there, and she said that it would be completely fine for me to show up at this meeting and just say I wasn’t hungry and not eat. To me, this seems like a breach of business etiquette, particularly seeing that it will just be me and the woman I’m meeting with, and she very explicitly mentioned meeting to talk business and have lunch. Also, as a fundraiser, a large part of my job is building rapport with potential donors (even if they’re just government representatives), and intentionally not eating in such a situation would appear to me to create awkwardness. I’ve been at numerous coffee or cocktail meetings where one person is hungry and orders food and the other doesn’t and that has never been uncomfortable, but as this was a specific invite for lunch, I think it’s different. My friend has told me that I’m just projecting my own issues onto the scenario and others wouldn’t think it was strange to not eat. I disagee, but am open to being told that I’m wrong.

No, you’re right and your friend is wrong. When you meet someone for a business lunch, it’s assumed that you’ll eat. If you don’t, you’re likely to make the other person uncomfortable — few people want to eat a full meal across from someone who isn’t eating at all, especially in a business context.

But your lunch costs really should be a work expense. You’re meeting with this woman for your job, not for something vaguer like networking. It’s part of your job, and therefore your office should reimburse you for the expense, just like they’d pay for a plane ticket or an admission fee to a conference you were required to attend. These are work expenses.

I can’t tell from your letter if you’ve brought this up with your manager or not. If not, you should. I can see an argument for them not picking up the tab for your coffee, on the assumption that it’s small and you might have bought yourself a coffee anyway, but an expensive meal that you wouldn’t be having if not for your job? They should pay.

Of course, this might all be moot, since generally the person who issued the invitation pays. So hopefully she’s going to pay for you herself anyway. But if she doesn’t, and if your office refuses to pay this legitimate work expense (grrr), scope out the menu ahead of time to plot your strategy. Can you order two appetizers as a cheaper meal (and attribute it to the appetizers being the most interesting thing on the menu, which they often are)? Order vegetarian, which is often cheaper? Or some other strategy that someone who is less of a glutton than me might suggest?

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