Reader question #55: How do you correct another adult’s table manners without being a jerkass concern troll about it?

Hello, Awkward-eers!

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

32 comments
  1. robiewankenobie said:

    huh. perfectly lovely boyfriend neglects to place napkin in lap. i’m having a hard time getting worked up over this. first world problem, for sure.

    that being said, a perfectly lovely boyfriend would probably not be too put out by a request to put his napkin in his lap when dining at posh establishments.

    • Been there... said:

      I agree, to a point. If most of the stuff in your life is normal and happy, then sure, no napkin in the lap is not necessarily a huge deal. But there are times when concerns about manners loom large. My husband doesn’t have perfect manners, and he doesn’t have great social skills. He’s looking for work, and I worry how these seemingly minor problems may affect his chances. As the letter writer said, when you are networking or at a business lunch, little things like slurping wine are going to be noticed.

      I also agree with the writer that these sorts of etiquette hiccups are uncomfortably awkward. Recently, my husband and I were a birthday party for a two year old. Boring as hell, to be sure. Husband sat down on the floor with his eyes closed. I was mortified. He argued that no one cared, but I disagree. People expect others at a social event to interact appropriately, make small talk, or at the very least, just appear to be shy or minding their own business.

      A week later, we had to attend another kid’s birthday party (yay). Beforehand, I gently suggested to my husband that if he didn’t want to come along, he could drop us off (I can’t drive right now for health reasons) or he could take a break from the party if he found he didn’t want to be social any more. In fact, he seemed to have a good time, chatting with our friends, playing with our kids and generally acting normal. Granted, there was beer at this party… but I think the friendly reminder was helpful.

  2. Kenzie said:

    Ah, I LOVED Miss Manners’ answer to questions like these.

    Look, manners are something you perform yourself, not something you impose on others. The rudest person at the table is always the person who is judging other people on their manners.

    Napkin in lap? Whatever, they’re his pants. Lip smacking? In my experience, lip smacking eaters are people who needs to BREATH THROUGH THEIR MOUTHS. Because they can’t breath through their noses maybe? Or because they often can’t? The point is, unless you’re a parent with a young child, you have no business telling other people how to behave, unless they ask you for advice. That’s just rude.

    • btothes said:

      Agreed. I remember a story I read about how friends of Ms. Manner’s children were mortified to come over for dinner, for fear of being called out on poor table manners. Her response is that she would never, ever, in a million years think of embarrassing anybody like that.

      I am also thankful for my high school Spanish teacher, who beat continental style table manners into my brain before letting me loose in Spain. They have made this girl who grew up in hicksville comfortable eating anywhere and with anyone. So, if dear reader ever hears her love talk about being uncomfortable, feel free to teach. Otherwise, enjoy your dinner.

  3. allreb said:

    Soooo… you’re embarrassed for him. It sounds to me like that problem is on you. People are raised with different manners, and different ideas of what’s normal. If it’s something that’s actively grossing you out, ie, eating with mouth open? Then sure, “Hey, honey, this is awkward, but it kind of grosses me out when you chew with your mouth open.” But seriously, he doesn’t put a napkin on his lap? As someone said above: they’re his pants. What are you worried about?

    Ummmm, is the difference between fortified and aged wine something most people are concerned about, which I just happened to miss?

  4. Sara said:

    A lot of the fear stemming from this manners issue seems to be coming from ‘what you think people think, about your boyfriend’.
    Do you feel like they are judging you by association?
    Are you projecting your judgements on his character onto ‘people with manners’?
    You mention that he’s ‘working class’, as a caveat, but mention that you are too (and your manners are fine) – is there a deeper ‘good enough’ issue under here somewhere?

    Alternately, are you at the point in your relationship where ‘little things’ are starting to niggle in general? Take it from me, the more you obsess over these little things, the more the chance they will eventually really, really annoy you.

    I agree with above- manners are something you have, not something you impose on others. I found the tone of your letter, however well meant, very judgemental. Now, that’s partly down to me, but I can’t help wondering if your manners issue is somehow related to a parental script you still use.

    Lastly, as alluded to above, I cannot breathe through my nose, and ended up obsessing over how to disguise it from ‘manners people’ in public. For years I couldn’t eat in front of anyone, or I’d have to puke afer eating as a result of gradually suffocating myself. Basically: Everyone’s got their first world foodie cross to bear. Or as someone mentioned above: they’re his pants.

    • Regann said:

      I’m with you on the nose-breathing thing, I spent years taking a quite bite and then raising a hand to shield my mouth as I chewed for the same reason.

  5. Jennie said:

    I sort of agree with the general trend here – if it bothers YOU, you should be able to talk to a friend or boy/girlfriend in a private setting about it. If you’re coming from a place of knowing that manners can be silly but that some people consider them important, then you should be able to talk about it without it being a REALLY BIG DEAL.

    Fun fact – I had to relearn table manners to an extent during a semester in France. For example, putting ones hands down under the table (like on your lap) was considered rude. Also, salad should be eaten with a knife and fork – the knife was to help put stuff on the fork.

    • Caito said:

      Same thing with me in Japan. Over there, it’s appropriate to slurp up your noodles. My coworkers teased me for having “weak cheek muscles.”

  6. Well, of course everyone’s right that you shouldn’t try to control other people’s behavior. But that’s not really what you’re asking – you’re asking how you can control his behavior without him feeling controlled.

    Your instinct is probably to try to be subtle. I would say, the least controlling way to control someone else’s behavior is brutal honestly. When the two of you are alone – as in ALONE alone, not like when the other couple is in the next room or whatever but when you’re home alone eating just the two of you – say “Jesus, don’t chew with your mouth open, it’s gross.”

    Will he be a bit put off? Sure. Then he’ll get over it. But if you mount some sort of secret campaign to improve his table manners, it’s going to create other issues. Just take responsibility for your desire to see him change his behavior and deal with the consequences. You’ll both be better off.

    • JenniferP said:

      “The least controlling way to control someone else’s behavior is brutal honestly.”

      Comment of the day, sir. Well said.

    • Caito said:

      I agree with you. My younger sister can be exceptionally forthright about other people’s manners, but believe me, her boyfriend’s siblings are much better off for it. (Not just better mannered, the one is a better person. He used to be really rude to waitstaff but my sister shut that down.)

    • Caito said:

      And I think you should bring this up at the earliest possible opportunity, so that you have less time to obsess over it and let it make you crazy. The sooner you get it off your chest, the better. And he’s not going to stop doing this if he’s not even really aware he’s doing it to begin with.

  7. It’s not like he cuts off a chunk of steak bigger than his mouth, waves it at his conversation partner while animatedly making a point before biting off a hunk leaving his fork-carrying elbow on the table and chewing loudly. (My husband) When I can’t contain the cringe I make a joke of it (not a humiliate him in front of others kind of joke) but I’m lucky in that he doesn’t get defensive and really, I know it’s my problem. He’s aware his table manners are ‘non-standard’ but he rarely gives a damn and is capable of being less ‘non-standard’ if he’s somewhere posh (in fact if make a joke about it he will pointedly go to the other extreme and play it for laughs). If someone actually viewed him as lesser because of his lack of concern about table manners I’d take that as a sign of a shallow asshole.

    If you absolutely have to say something say it lightly, even jokingly, with an awareness that you’re talking about something ultimately meaningless. But if I were you I would leave it, there’s more important shit.

  8. Traditional Married said:

    This was really interesting to me, because my (awesome) husband has more than a few times been described as a barbarian by acquaintances. So I asked him, if we were out in public, like at a fancy dinner or whatever, and you were Not Having Manners, would you want to be told? He said yeah, but in a discreet way that didn’t embarrass him. The same for me, I think it would be more embarrassing to find out after the dinner or whatever ended that I’d had a Manners Fail than for someone to just whisper to me to put my napkin in my lap.

  9. denelian said:

    Sara, above, brought up a good point that i think needs to be expanded upon.

    ARE you feeling judged by others because your guy doesn’t have “good manners”?

    and is it indirect [i.e. you think they are but no one has ever said anything, they just give looks or whatever] or is it overt?

    because if THIS is the problem, i get it. women are [as you stated yourself] considered to be the “gatekeepers” of things like manners and politness, sex, domesticity, cleanliness, fashion, etc.
    i’m so very disabled, about 50% of the time i can’t even get off my bed without help. i CANNOT CLEAN THE APARTMENT. on a really really REALLY good day [that will lead to many bad days] i can load the dishwasher.

    and now there are a couple dozen people who i won’t let come over, because they make little “jokes” and otherwise insult ME for the apartment being messy, even though A) i don’t make most of the mess and B) i CAN’T change it.

    but i’m the one with the boobs and vagina, therefor it’s MY FAULT. even if only because i should “make” my guy clean.

    if it’s indirect, looks and such, i’d either ignore it, or take it for commiseration [“we both have partners who lack manners” is REALLY easy to communicate with an eyeroll. and etc]
    but if it’s direct… is that what you’re getting from people? little things like “wow, it must be hard to be in public with him, you really love him to ignore this” or maybe “why haven’t you trained him yet?”

    if THAT is the problem, my advice to you is to tell those specific individuals to fuck off the next time they make a comment. if they just walk away, you’ve won! if they’re offened and demand to know why, you can either say “he’s an adult, i’m not his mother, and it’s NOT MY JOB OR RESPONSIBILITY TO “TRAIN” HIM!” or you can say “you’ve just been incredibly rude; i’ll leave HOW as an exercise to the student” or something else reasonably pithy. i keep a stock of such phrase in my forebrain at all times. [and my guy has decent table etiquette – but i have a snobbish bitch for a sister]

    moving on: if it really is that you’re worried his possible lack is going to cost him, materially, in terms of job/advancement/necessary connections, then you might [as others have said] in TRUE PRIVACY, say “i don’t intend this to be rude or insulting, but etiquette is very important when trying to sell yourself. i’d like to help you improve your etiquette, if you don’t mind. it will help you with networking and/or impressing you boss”

    • denelian:

      that sucks; i feel for you. I’m in kind of the converse situation – I’m a house-husband/SAHD so cleaning the house is my responsibility, but I’m not that good at it and so our house is usually messy.

      Of course no one judges ME for this – it’s somehow my wife’s responsibility to clean the house. I guess maybe she should put the phone on mute and vacuum during conference calls?

      • denelian said:

        ooooooooooooooooh!!! that’s really sucky.

        i sometimes just HATE society.

        i have a buddy who has been the stay-at-home-dad for the past 10 years. but now the youngest is in school, he wants to work again – and NO ONE can apparantly get past that 10 year gap. he’s a MAN! why is HE staying home instead of his wife?! what’s WRONG with him, is he lazy?

        etc ad infinum. makes me want to murder in job lots.

        thankfully, he’s a better housekeeper than she is [and better with kids, too] so she doesn’t get much flak for that [she DOES get “but why isn’t HE working? what’s WRONG with him that he’s not working?” and i envy her total self control]

        good luck to you! housework is a LOT harder than people think [especially people used to it] but it’s not difficult – just massively hard. [does that make sense? maybe i should say “it’s not complicated once you know what you’re doing, but it’s HARD WORK”]

  10. Caito said:

    First of all, you need to decide exactly how big a deal this is to you. Don’t let other people make that call for you. Yes, they can point out why it SHOUDLN’T be such a sticking point with you, but when it comes down to it, everyone has pet peeves and you don’t have to justify every one of them. Nobody can be perfectly tolerant all of the time, even of the people we like very much.

    If you decide it’s not a huge issue, you drop it and stop obsessing over it. But if it is something you decide you need to address, then address it sooner rather than later. He can’t improve behavior if he doesn’t know to improve it, and once you make him aware of it then the onus is on him to do something (if anything).

    I agree with ApeMan1976 that brutal honesty is the best way to go, though you can be less brutal and more honest. And you can always mitigate any harshness with, “I know it’s a small thing but I find it distracting/it drives me crazy/I don’t understand why you do that.” Then, if it were me, I’d give him credit for trying, even if he still mostly fails at it. It can be extremely hard to change a habit, especially one we do every day without devoting any conscious thought to it at all.

    • btothes said:

      “I agree with ApeMan1976 that brutal honesty is the best way to go, though you can be less brutal and more honest. And you can always mitigate any harshness with, “I know it’s a small thing but I find it distracting/it drives me crazy/I don’t understand why you do that.”

      I like that. Less brutal, more honest. In the spirit of Captain Awkward, channel Howard’s End. Be more Emma Thompson. Less Anthony Hopkins.

      • robiewankenobie said:

        btothes – this.

  11. InMyTeeth said:

    Thanks, everybody. This was all very helpful.

    As it happens, something kind of odd happened the other day that will actually make it easier to start a conversation about it. My boyfriend, B, was over for dinner the other night, and we had a kind of large group over (like eight people), and just when everybody was loading up their plates, he stepped out on the porch for a cigarette. At dinner parties where there’s a serve-yourself line B tends to wait until everyone is done, or nearly done, filling their plates before he gets up for food. I think it’s a long habit from growing up in a big extended family with lots of potlucks, and a general irritation with lines, compounded by a recent disability that makes standing around unpleasant, or actively painful, at times.

    The weird thing? My housemate, M., who is also one of my best friends, loves to cook, had cooked much of the meal that night, and can be a little put out when people don’t want to eat his food. (Two of our guests that night were on a diet that precluded being able to eat most of our spread, but had been in the neighborhood and dropped by to say hello, on our invitation, and decided to politely nibble a bit.) M asked me if B had “disappeared,” I explained he was on the porch having a smoke, then M went out and asked him if he, too, was “watching [his] weight.” B. explained that this is his m.o. at potlucks and he would be in in a minute, and my housemate said, “Uh, I’ll keep that in mind.”

    So I want to talk to both of them. I can see why my housemate was offended/confused/annoyed, but I also think his handling of it was obnoxious and uncalled for. So I can tell him, “Hey, I got the sense you were a little offended the other night, and I don’t know if it bothered B or not, but putting him on the spot like that was uncalled for. I really don’t think this had anything to do with you, since I’ve seen him do the same thing at parties with his family. In the future, can you wait a little longer before deciding to get involved, and then try not to be catty about it when you do?”

    And I can go to my boyfriend and say, “Hey, look, I think M handled things really badly and have told him that, but I understand why your ducking out like that looked weird to him and probably hurt his feelings a bit. Maybe next time we are at a dinner party you could try to wait for the right moment to say to the host, ‘Hey, this all looks fantastic. I’ve got to step out for a bit, but I’ll come back and join you after that,’ so the people who put work into the meal don’t take offense. That said, I’ve noticed a couple of other things that bug me and that I think might look weird to other people, so I want to run them by you if that’s OK. In the interest of fair play, you can tell me if there’s anything I do that concerns you the same way. Also, if you ever have a question about a specific etiquette thing, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.”

    • In My Teeth said:

      LW again. So this is not at all what ended up happening. Inspired by 1) my realization that I was really overthinking things like the interaction between my boyfriend and my housemate (I don’t need to get invested in momentary-awkwardness-with-no-discernible-hurt-feelings between people who are not me) and 2) the many questions about the napkin-on-lap example and comments to the effect of “people are taught different things in different regions,” so I just decided to start broaching things in the moment and saying, “Hey, when I was growing up I was taught to do x, but I’ve noticed you don’t ever do that. Were you taught something else, or is it more of a choice on your part? Either way, it bugs me. Can you try and adjust your habits at least when I’m around?” This has worked out pretty well.

  12. Chantilli said:

    Been lurking here for a while. Great blog!

    Moving on to the post at hand:

    My first thought: wow, classism rears it ugly head. A few years ago as an undergrad, I was in a political sociology class where we paired up with another student and basically spoke about our childhoods and lives (the class was mixed in terms of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality etc). When we came to the section on class, interestingly this is where the biggest disparaties were. Coming from a economically poor background, I had not been taught nearly half the staff other people had in terms of table manners. Quite frankly, alot of the crap that passes for manners is bullshit – who cares if your napkin is in your lap or not? The purpose? If it’s not your pants/dress/skirt etc, then what’s the problem?

    People are only being rude if they are intentionally not giving a crap. Not knowing something is not rude, so quite frankly, we all need to check our privilege a bit and ask ourselves if people were even taught the same things we were. And if not, does that particular social rule have any actual purpose beyond being acceptable in some circles? If not, then what’s the problem?

    Second thought: yeah it sucks to be in the company of someone who embarasses you. If you really can’t live with it, then discuss it with your partner, forthrightly, keeping in mind that you could actually just be acting like a giant jerk about something (and maybe not – it really depends on the issue). Sometimes just talking helps the negative feelings resolve themselves, even if the situation itself remains constant.

    Yikes, did not mean my first comment to be so long.

    • allreb said:

      I’m a few days late but poking my head in again because I think classism is a pretty important point to bring up — especially because in the letter, she specifies that they are both working class and seems embarrassed by that or the idea that other people will recognize it.

      I get it. I really, really do — that’s pretty much me. I grew up in a poor, rural town, living in a house so run-down that the ceiling eventually collapsed. But I went to an expensive college where everyone else considered their lives “normal” when to me they seemed “rich.” (We were all actually probably outliers at opposite ends of the middle class spectrum, but what people think of as upper-middle-class to me looked super-ultra-wealthy, because, well… poor.) There was a lot of awkward adjustments I had to go through, and times when I felt really awful and didn’t know why, and times when I STILL do, even though I’m mostly over that.

      And the thing is, I’ve jumped up from that lower-lower-middle-class-whatever to pretty solidly, actually in the middle, and generally I’m very proud of myself for various reasons, because yeah, hard work. But I also have friends who still don’t get the differences in our backgrounds. Things like table manners, housekeeping, etc, were NOT my family’s concerns when I was growing up. So the difference between my apartment and my best friend’s, in terms of house keeping, is something I am always HYPER conscious of. And she doesn’t think I’m a terrible housekeeper or anything (I’ve actually talked this through with her) — the perception that she does is ENTIRELY in my head, because I’M the one who’s aware of the differences, and every time I notice them, I feel right back in the awkward, college, different-from-everyone-else-in-a-bad-way headspace.

      So what really strikes me about the letter (that may be 100% me projecting, since I’ve already fully copped to my issues, here!) is that the writer may just feel like those bad habits or manners are an identifier of the working-class background, something that’s pretty culturally stigmatized. It might be that no one else sees that or feels that way, but it’s HARD to break out of that kind of mindset. But the thing is, it comes back to the letter-writer at least as much as her boyfriend — because if what I just projected all over the place up there IS part of the issue, then for as much as fixing his table manners helps, it’s also masking a symptom of how SHE feels and issues SHE may have to confront.

      Umm… end long-winded, unasked for comment.

  13. Chisa said:

    I really thought it was a joke. I mean “he doesn’t put his napkin on his lap” is the last thing I would notice. In my culture it is not even normal anymore to do that at all. (I’m from Germany.) An in the US of A I actually didn’t see people do that, too. I mean at a fancy restaurant with real napkins, well, okay, you do that, I guess. But I don’t have the money for those restaurants anyway. And putting paper napkins on my lap never crossed my mind ever.

    I actually dated a guy once, who would go on about the behavior he couldn’t tolerate in a girl while sitting on a table with her: 1) one girlfriend licked her knife in front of him – he was really grossed out and never wanted to have sex with her again and 2) a girl sneezing in front of him (at the table) without holding a hand in front of her mouth (well, okay, it’s gross and not-so-nice, let alone hygienic behavior – but I know how it can go: the sneeze impulse is sometimes way too fast to actually get the hand in place…)
    He made it very clear what he thought of such awful behavior. And I was very clear about him not being my dream lover ever. Btw, he then rambled on about his plan on being hotter than the bridegroom of one of his ex-girlfriends (whom he never really loved anyway) on her wedding day. What a jerk.

    • he then rambled on about his plan on being hotter than the bridegroom of one of his ex-girlfriends (whom he never really loved anyway) on her wedding day.

      Wow, he was really not over her, or was just a shallow jerk. I have ex-friends who are like that, and, well, they are ex- for a reason.

  14. A. said:

    Wait, you’re not supposed to go to the john before ordering at a sit down restaurant? What if it was a long drive there?

  15. Finnegan said:

    …The napkin goes on your lap? Is that just an American thing (I’m Scottish), or was I just, uh, raised in a barn, I guess would be how the LW would put it?

    • JenniferP said:

      Where do Scots put the napkin? Americans = definitely on the lap.

  16. Frederik Norberg said:

    I learned to chew with my mouth closed late (as a teen-ager). Napkins in laps, salad forks, all came after college. I’m still unsure when and where this stuff matters. If I’m in a high class restaurant, wedding reception, business meeting- no problem, I follow basic dining protocol. But I still see lots of people in these situations chewing with mouths open, talking with their mouths full… and a good amount of these people are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s.

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