I got this great question recently, and I don’t know how to answer it. I’m pretty sure that no one wants to have their table manners critiqued or have to critique the table manners of another adult, so it’s definitely awkward if it becomes necessary to have this conversation with a loved one. Maybe something like “I’ve noticed you don’t put your napkin in your lap when we sit down, is there a reason?” is the answer? Or, for actual serious gross manners violations, “You probably don’t realize this since you can’t see yourself, but you chew with your mouth open sometimes.” Maybe there should be Periodic Table Manners Review With Trusted Friends as we age? But beyond that…I don’t know how I’d bring it up. Does anyone have any experience with this or good advice for the letter writer?
Here’s a fairly straightforward question but one whose answer could be helpful to lots of people, myself among them. In a recent post you advise an anxious soon-to-be-partygoer that if she isn’t sure she has great table manners, to get together with a trusted friend and get feedback.
So…what’s the best way to give someone feedback when you’ve noticed that their table manners are not awesome? I dated someone for a long time who was generally a great and considerate and well-mannered guy, but chewed with his mouth open (not so much that you saw his food, but the lip smacking was pretty loud and pretty gross). The thing I’ve noticed with my current sweetheart (also great, considerate and well-mannered) is that he never, ever puts his napkin on his lap during meals, even when we’re in a nice place with a group of people who are all doing this. I don’t even really know if this considered a matter of etiquette or just a best practice that was drilled into my klutzy self from early childhood on.
Actually, that’s kind of the thing. Most of the time if I think someone has crossed a line manners-wise I find it pretty easy to correct them, making my argument from empathy (“How would you feel if someone came to your house for dinner a lot and never contributed to the feast? Groceries and alcohol can be very expensive and I wish you’d help out”) but table manners are different. Yeah, if you spit on the table and eat salad with your hands and then lick the dressing off your thumbs, or just go to the john before placing your order in a sit-down restaurant, that’s pretty inconsiderate, but when it comes to more subtle table manners violations, people aren’t likely to get grossed out or offended so much as they are to think the person in question kind of a slob. I mean, I’m not sure anyone’s feelings are getting hurt because my fellow doesn’t consider himself a sloppy enough eater to put a napkin down.
I just don’t want anyone to think my perfectly lovely boyfriend was born in a barn. I don’t want anyone I care about to get passed over for a great opportunity because he or she slurped wine too loudly over lunch with a professional contact. OK, that and I just think it’s a little weird and embarrassing. It doesn’t help that both of the men I used as examples above come from pretty working class backgrounds, and so did I — like, my father didn’t know the difference between fortified wine and aged wine until I told him a couple of years ago. But talking about it that way makes me feel a little like the lady from the Scottish play (old theater nerds never die, something something). And the fact that women are so often portrayed as/expected to be the gatekeepers of gentility in this world annoys the ever living shit out of me. I don’t need or want my partner to know which kind of fork to use and which course is supposed to go in which order in a million-part meal. But the stuff that people do pay attention to, even if it’s a tad arbitrary — how do I talk about it without sounding like a jerkass concern troll? Under what circumstances does one just let these things slide?
– Something In My Teeth