Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 14, 2003
I love the man I live with, but he is completely lacking in table etiquette. I can even hear him chew!
I don’t even know if this qualifies as a “real problem,” but since I started reading your column way back when you took over for Mr. Blue, I’ve read some pretty wacky stuff, so here goes:
I am in a relationship with a man for whom I care very deeply. We’re in our mid-40s, have been together over four years, both have kids, (his are older and living in another town), and we moved in together last fall. So far, so good. We are adjusting to the schedule differences and quirks that couples go through when they live together. The “problem”? His table manners are atrocious! I find myself on Manners Patrol during each meal, ostensibly directed toward my children, but actually, they have better manners than he. He sits with his body very close to his plate and shovels the food into his mouth. The arm he’s not using is draped on the table, fingers are used to push food onto the fork. And the worst part? I can hear him chew! I actually got up from the table last night and moved to another chair. And the final gross-out: He licked his fork clean and attempted to get another serving of mayonnaise for his artichoke directly from the jar. I yelled at him to stop, and he acted like I shot his dog.
He has so many other attributes that are wonderful, but I’m really bothered by this. Is this is a control thing? Do you have any thought on how to get my point across without him thinking I’m busting his balls?
Ball-Busting Miss Manners
I did have a thought or two. But I thought I’d ask my wife first. So I went upstairs just now — this is before coffee or anything — and after marveling at the way the 85-pound poodle was sitting upright on the edge of the unmade bed as if checking her makeup in the mirror, I said — to my wife, not the dog — “What would you do if I had terrible table manners?”
“I’d leave you,” she said.
So evidently your concern is not trivial. I do often encourage my wife to say the first thing that pops into her head, because, I suppose, I am some sort of perverse thrill-seeker. But she thinks things through afterward and comes up with mitigating, contradictory, mutually exclusive and sometimes seemingly irrelevant codicils. So then she said, “Well, actually, I’d train you.”
Some people need training. Your boyfriend is apparently one of them. Training an intimate is tricky. But it can be done. So far, what you seem to have done is first flee the problem by moving to another chair, and then attack him for it, by yelling at him to stop. Neither of those is likely to be very effective. They are the two extremes of the fight-or-flight impulses we used to hear about so much back when stress was considered the biggest problem facing America today. What you must learn to do instead is steer right between those two impulses. Rather than fighting or flighting, rather than shooting your boyfriend’s dog or moving into a tent in the back yard, you need to place your hands in you lap and say mildly, “If you stick your fork in the mayonnaise jar again, sweetheart, I’m going to stab your hand with a steak knife.” You can even do this in public, with one of those stagey smiles you use when you know you’re being watched by federal agents.
I’m kind of kidding around, aren’t I? Well, yes and no. The point is that you are not crazy or silly for thinking that it matters. It does matter. Everyone I talked to said that hearing the sound of someone chew, or seeing someone hunched simian-like over a plate of victuals was viscerally disturbing. While certain finer points of table etiquette may be a matter of class, once you have been taught to be sensitive to them, you cannot simply undo your conditioning. And he really ought to be given the opportunity to learn. So if you are in doubt, let me say this: I believe it is your right — nay, your responsibility! — to mold this howling, savage brute into the kind of suave, debonair stud you could hose down and take to KFC, or even to the Olive Garden, with pride.
The thing is, you have to learn some new behaviors too. As you might say to one of your children, Do you hear anyone else yelling at their boyfriend? All right, then. Use your indoor voice. Rather than barking at him or avoiding him, give him regular gentle reminders and corrections. If he resists, keep at it. He may at first think you’re busting his balls, but he’ll realize, after a while, you’re actually polishing his stones.
This will take time. You will need a program of long-term engagement. But if engagement is what you have in mind, such a course of instruction should fit nicely with the rest of your plans.