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Ask Mister Manners: My friend chews with their mouth open. Can I tell them to stop?

It's a major dinnertime distraction. When is it OK to step in and say something?
Should I say something to my friend who has really bad table manners?
Should I say something to my friend who has really bad table manners?Yagi Studio / Getty Images

Dear Mister Manners: I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve eaten out with friends who gobble their entrées before others have theirs, chew with their mouths wide open, reach across the table for what they want, slurp and guzzle their drinks, and, unsurprisingly, burp loudly — and often. It’s hard for me to believe they don’t know any better, but I’m struggling with whether I should speak up or simply bring blinders and earplugs the next time I join them for dinner.

(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a weekly column that delves into a smorgasbord of dining-etiquette dilemmas. Please submit your questions at the bottom of this page.)

Are you dining in a fraternity hall? This sort of behavior is so extreme-sounding it’s as though your crew is contending for a “Worst-Ever Dining Etiquette” citation.

If your friends actually do know better but are gleefully opting to ignore generally accepted guidelines of common decency, you have two choices. Option 1: If you see something, say something. Option 2: If they suggest grabbing a bite again, be sure to have other plans.

For the sake of discussion, let’s envision an alternative scenario where your friends are not proto-Neanderthals but well-intentioned adults who maybe missed a manners memo or two in their formative years. Would it be appropriate to speak up then?

Assess cultural influences

Before presuming a deficiency in their upbringing, ponder whether your etiquette differences have anything to do with your respective cultural backgrounds. “In the West, it’s a given that you shouldn’t chew with your mouth open; when you eat soup, you don't slurp,” said Sara Jane Ho, founder of Miss Wonder, parent company of Institute Sarita, a finishing school for women in China.

Sara Jane Ho offers a 10-day finishing school for women in China, where she trains in all aspects of Eastern and Western dining etiquette.
Sara Jane Ho offers a 10-day finishing school for women in China, where she trains in all aspects of Eastern and Western dining etiquette.Courtesy of Sara Jane Ho

A native of Hong Kong who was educated at Georgetown and Harvard Business School, Ho has a keen understanding of the manners of both East and West. She explained that far from being offensive, in China, “Slurping or making a noise when you eat your soup shows that it's really tasty.”

With that said, if someone is not a native of Guangzhou but rather a fourth-generation local of Gainesville, Florida, cultural heritage is likely not the culprit here.

Spending a significant amount of time in world cities such as New York and Paris, Ho has certainly seen her share of table manners that cannot be explained by nationality. Nonetheless, if she were not dining in Luoyang but rather on the Lower East Side of Manhattan or the Left Bank of the Seine, she would still not speak up after witnessing behavior that most Americans or Europeans would view as a transgression.

“Sometimes, part of having good manners is putting up with other people's bad manners,” she said. “I think anybody who goes around telling their dining companions everything they're doing wrong is just not pleasant to be with."

A more subtle approach

If outright etiquette shaming is the antithesis of good manners, could there be other ways to send the same message without causing embarrassment?

Ken Downing, the newly named creative director for legendary fashion house Halston, prefers to set the right example as a way of setting tablemates straight. “When I stand for a woman as she gets up from a table, other men follow suit,” he said. “When she returns, I stand again. People are always amazed I actually do that. And women who understand proper etiquette are always touched by it.”

Creative director for Halston, Ken Downing, aims to lead by example when it comes to elevating the dining habits of others.
Creative director for Halston, Ken Downing, aims to lead by example when it comes to elevating the dining habits of others.Courtesy of Ken Downing

Beyond chivalry, Downing believes in the importance of fostering connections and conversation: “When you're at a black-tie event, chances are you don’t know all the other people at your table.” Rather than gobbling down gala food and asking questions later, Downing makes a point of walking around the table to introduce himself: “I'm so and so. This is what I do. I'm pleased to be your tablemate this evening, and I’m looking forward to learning more about you.”

A social creature by nature and the former fashion director for retailer Neiman Marcus, Downing admits he will even offer an assist to those who are either forgetful or oblivious in other areas.

If someone sitting next to him has forgotten one of the first orders of business before tucking into their meal, he admitted, “I might say, ‘Let me get your napkin for you,’ and I place it in their lap.” Downing’s actions are never about making another person feel less, he said, but rather helping them be at their best.

Throwing a hint and some humor

Like Downing, A.J. Jacobs, columnist for Mental Floss and the author of multiple books, including "Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey," prefers a sneakier approach to nudging dining companions to be at their best. “If your kids happen to be at the table, you can correct their manners,” he suggested, with the intended recipient of your advice being not your offspring at all but another adult at the table.

Something along the lines of: “We don’t chew with our mouths open, Hannah.” Just make certain your children are in on the ruse first.

 A.J. Jacobs, author of multiple books, including his latest, "The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life."
A.J. Jacobs, author of multiple books, including his latest, "The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life."Lem Lattimer

Another tack he suggested is to pull etiquette into the conversation. One way you might do so? Work in a historic reference, such as casually mentioning George Washington’s "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior." Transcribed from a 16th century text when the young colonial was still a teenager, it includes such gems as “Put not your meat to your mouth with your knife.” For Jacobs, a writer who delights in all things quirky, it would not seem random to his friends that he’s introduced a topic like this mid-conversation. His ultimate aim, of course, is that some of the trivia sinks in and enhances the table’s decorum.

But for those instances where the subtle approach fails, overt humor may hold the key. “If it's a close friend, you might say something along the lines of 'Would you mind opening your mouth even wider, please? I can't see what might be in there,'" he suggested. To the buddy who eats everything with his hands: "'Oh, I notice that you side with the medieval church and view forks as a tool of the devil?'"

Correcting a colleague

The tongue-in-cheek approach is not as advisable in a professional setting. Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster and a familiar TODAY guest, counsels caution before correcting a co-worker’s table etiquette. “They're not your children, they're not your responsibility,” she said.

Career expert Vicki Salemi, author of "Big Career in the Big City: Land a Job and Get a Life in New York."
Career expert Vicki Salemi, author of "Big Career in the Big City: Land a Job and Get a Life in New York."Courtesy of Vicki Salemi

At the same time, some lapses may be too flagrant to ignore, such as when an office mate is belligerent with a server or makes an embarrassing or offensive comment to a client. In such instances, she advised pulling the colleague aside and having a word out of earshot of others: "'I know you didn’t mean to, but you offended that person and you may want to apologize before we leave.'"

If you are the individual’s boss or mentor, a more in-depth conversation may be in order at a later time — both to preserve your client relationships and also, the person’s career prospects. Salemi suggested framing dining etiquette not as something antiquated but as vital for anyone who cares about career success. "If you want to present yourself as polished and as professional as possible, that extends to the dining table, and being mindful of other people and your behaviors," she said.

Best time to start

All of the individuals I interviewed concurred that the lessons of dining etiquette are best acquired in youth. For parents of Generation Alpha, then, the time is now.

Zack Bush, a father of three young children and co-author of "The Little Book of Good Manners," agreed that instructing youngsters about the dos and don’ts of table etiquette should start early. "If you wait until your kids are 15, it's too late," he warned. Nor should parents expect their offspring to learn by simple osmosis. “Nobody is born knowing how to behave at the table,” he said. “It's up to the adults in the room to teach them.”

Co-author of "The Little Book of Good Manners" Zack Bush with his children Ace (age 7), Alexandra (20 months) and Ava (age 6).
Co-author of "The Little Book of Good Manners" Zack Bush with his children Ace (age 7), Alexandra (20 months) and Ava (age 6).Courtesy of Zack Bush

A bonus of instilling the importance of manners in your children is that it can bolster their confidence. "It's little things like this that help build up their self-esteem," he said.

Bush advised appealing to their desire to be perceived as grown-ups: '"You see Mommy and Daddy? We have our napkins on our laps. We don't have our elbows on the table. We don't attack the bread the second it hits the table,'" he proposed.

Know when to hold and when to scold

I lead dining etiquette workshops for corporations and universities across the U.S., and have come to observe that many people view proper table manners with equal parts fear and fascination. And yet, once they’ve learned both the what and the why, they typically feel empowered and enlightened, eager to embrace their new skills the next time they dine out with others.

As a firm believer that the best etiquette of all is that which makes everyone around you feel more comfortable, it is only in rare instances I advise critiquing the dining etiquette of others.

Here are my guidelines:

Speak up in the moment (firmly) when someone is:

  • Drunk and acting inappropriately
  • Being belligerent to others at the table, including the server
  • Grabbing food (uninvited) from others’ plates

Speak up later (and gingerly) when someone is:

  • Making obvious faux pas that set tongues wagging behind their backs
  • Committing errors that are hurting their professional image
  • Acting in ways that put a damper on their dating prospects

Grin and bear it when a non-family member adult is:

  • Chewing with their mouth open
  • Slurping their straw
  • Failing to use their napkin

Chill out when someone is:

  • Using the dinner fork for their salad
  • Holding their knife the wrong way
  • Putting elbows on the table while food is present

Bottom line? Tread carefully when critiquing your friends’ table etiquette. Otherwise, you may be dining all by yourself the next time around.

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