Dear Helena,

Recently a potential employer took me out to dinner. He wanted to order a bottle of wine, but I said I’d stick with water. He pressed me to join him, and I had to explain that I was doing a cleanse. I’m worried that my not drinking put a damper on the evening. (He hasn’t called.) At a business dinner, if the other person drinks, should you follow suit? If so, are some drinks better to order than others?—Low Spirits

Dear Low Spirits,

You don’t want to look like a boozehound at a business dinner. But you don’t want to be a buzzkill either. Plus, a cocktail can boost your confidence and act as a social lubricant (unless you’re an alcoholic, in which case politely declining is all you need to do). To maximize success, learn to leverage alcohol to your advantage. In other words, master the rules of strategic drinking. (Note that although daytime drinking has fallen out of favor, the same rules apply to business lunches as to dinners.)

1. Follow the top dog. At a business dinner, one person often has more power, whether he or she is an employer, customer, or client. The one with the power is the one who sets the standard. If you’re the top dog, have a tipple or not, as you like. If you’re the other guy, do as the top dog does. Be sure to order after him. If the server turns to you first, simply say, “Why don’t you take his order first? I’m still deciding.” If the balance of power is equal, simply observe the rules below.

2. Do as the Romans do. Maybe in the Midwest it’s OK to stick to milk, but in some milieus, teetotalers are seen as outsiders. Then you should be ready to get sloshed. Take the British publishing industry. David Shelley, an editorial director at Time Warner Books in London, says some of his colleagues like to drink a bottle of wine or more at lunch—each. “With this sort of person, you just have to give yourself over to it. Not to drink would be like a slap in the face to them.”

3. Find the sweet spot. If your companions are not heavy drinkers, then you need not overindulge. But Chris Taylor, senior editor at Business 2.0, says a drink or two helps you relax and focus. “Drinking at a business dinner is like drinking when playing pool. There is a sweet spot. If you have just the right amount to drink, fears and distractions melt away. You’re in the zone. If you have too much, you can get sloppy. You have to figure out your sweet spot. For me it’s around one and a half drinks.”

4. Quaff the classy stuff. Drinking cheap liquor says, “I’m a boozehound and I don’t care what I drink.” For the same reason, never order beer (unless it’s an expensive microbrew). Steve Anacker, a creative director at Swirl, a San Francisco ad agency, says: “Show a little sophistication. Order wine or a simple but grown-up drink, like a top-shelf Scotch and soda.” Note that fancier cocktails, like a banana bender, can make you look frivolous. You want a drink that says “professional,” not “party animal.”

By the way, when going out to dinner with someone, you should never, ever tell them you are cleansing. You just make your companion feel bad and thus drink even more. And don’t compromise your career so that you can cleanse. Red wine, after all, is high in antioxidants.

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