The no-good, terrible, horrible, very bad table manners
May 8, 2009 7:03 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend has really terrible table manners. What can I do to fix this?

(posting anon because I believe he also reads metafilter and knows my username)

My boyfriend of 2 years has very bad table manners. He tends to inhale his food, takes multiple bites of things at any given time, tears into hunks of meat or pieces of bread. Sometimes he'll lick his butter knife clean of sauce/jam. He'll use his fingers to wipe up bits of butter/jam/soup/sauce/grease and then licks them clean.

It bothers me, though not a great deal for the most part - if we're at home, I'm fine with it and really just don't care. However, we've recently been eating at more upscale places with people and this sort of thing is kind of embarrassing. He restrains himself a LITTLE when we're at these places (especially once I give him the eye) but he honestly doesn't think there's much wrong with his table habits.

I've mentioned it to him and offered to explain etiquette to him, but again, he feels he doesn't need it. He thinks he's doing okay. But I cringe when I see him lick jam from his butter knife or shove half a biscuit into his mouth.

So please help me think of some better ways to explain to him that yes, his table manners are bad, and he needs to change him. Some way to prove to him that they're not good. Or just some suggestions on how to keep him reigned in when we're out to dinner. I do practice good table etiquette in hopes that he will mimic, but it hasn't happened yet.
posted by anonymous to Food & Drink (50 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So the fact that it bothers you so intensely isn't enough for him?
posted by sickinthehead at 7:05 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

This sounds like it might be one of those situations where subtlety (like practicing good table etiquette in hopes that he will mimic) isn't going to work. You need to be direct and tell him that it isn't that his table manners need to be improved a little, it's that they're actually awful and embarrassing (phrased, of course, in a way that makes it clear you aren't attacking him, but rather that you're trying to help).
posted by ocherdraco at 7:11 AM on May 8, 2009

I do practice good table etiquette in hopes that he will mimic

Unless he is a parrot, I doubt this will help.

Talk to him.
posted by devnull at 7:15 AM on May 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm having difficulty determining whether it's that he does not think table manners are important or that he's incorrectly gauging his own acumen at behaving well-mannered.

If it's the former I'm not sure you'll be able to change his mind. If it's the latter, perhaps have a mirror out when you're eating at home? That would help to determine whether he just isn't seeing the behavior as others would or if he sees it but doesn't think it would be regarded as poor manners.
posted by XMLicious at 7:16 AM on May 8, 2009

Maybe you could slyly videorecord him eating that way at a fancy restaurant along with the reactions of everyone else at the table. Then ask him to watch it; it would aid in any explanation you might give him.
posted by bluefly at 7:17 AM on May 8, 2009

I think trying to control him is probably a bad idea. Generally when I find that I'm trying to control somebody, I try to step back and work on being patient and accepting. It usually helps us both.
posted by stubby phillips at 7:19 AM on May 8, 2009 [9 favorites]

Tell him you won't eat at nice places with him anymore if he continues to act that way. This may or may not work depending on whether he actually likes nice restaurants or not.
posted by ishotjr at 7:20 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

1) Is there anyone else that he cares about, besides you, that feels this is a problem? If so, have them talk to him.

2) Can you point to any situations where his table manners have cost him something? Say a promotion or you guys are banned from a restaurant or something? If so, point out those situations and highlight the cost to not only him, but you.

Otherwise, it's been two years and this hasn't been a deal breaker. This particular issue isn't about him per se, it's about your feelings on this one subject. Let him be and learn to live and love him as he is. Attempts to change him where he doesn't want to change aren't going to go over well.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:21 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with ocherdraco, this sounds like one of those time where subtlely isn't going to work. Especially if it's not something that's been important to him thus far.

I would try and have a conversation with him about how it makes you feel when your out at fancy places and he's all gobbling everything up.
posted by machine at 7:24 AM on May 8, 2009

Tell him that, just as people judge you by how you're dressed, whether you're well groomed, etc, that they also judge table manners. I don't know what he does/plans to do for a living or what clubs he belongs to/wants to join, but he will be laughed at behind his back and not get any job where he might have to take someone to lunch. Bad table manners are life limiting. I know this sounds stuffy and old-fashioned, but people are really sensitive to other people's bad habits.
posted by x46 at 7:25 AM on May 8, 2009

bluefly: Maybe you could slyly videorecord him eating that way
Screw being sly - tell him you don't like it and that you're going to video him eating at home. Do it for a few days, hopefully he won't play to the camera as much. Review footage, show him the greatest hits :)
posted by lowlife at 7:29 AM on May 8, 2009

You need to start caring at home. You're sending mixed signals.
posted by smackfu at 7:34 AM on May 8, 2009 [8 favorites]

Instead of getting him to do it your way, try doing it his way.
posted by poppo at 7:36 AM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't believe you can change people, especially when they see no reason to make the change. But, perhaps you can offer an exchange: If he makes an honest attempt to modify this behavior, then you will make an honest attempt to modify one of your behaviors that drive him nuts. Maybe he's never told you what that is, but I'm sure there is something.
posted by Houstonian at 7:43 AM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

He thinks he's doing okay. But I cringe

Learn to deal with it or cut him loose. He might change, he might not. He thinks he's making progress, you don't. If you keep badgering him about this habit, he will only resent it, particularly if he thinks he is making progress.
posted by chazlarson at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Maybe you could slyly videorecord him eating that way at a fancy restaurant along with the reactions of everyone else at the table. Then ask him to watch it; it would aid in any explanation you might give him.

Don't do this.
posted by jon_kill at 7:58 AM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mr Llama doesn't like it if I pee in front of him. I've peed in front of every boyfriend I ever had, and likewise. Maybe the rest of them were just barnyard animals, me included. But he doesn't like it, he thinks it is unromantic and that if you want to continue to see someone as sexy for the rest of your life, hey, maybe don't pee in front of them.

I despise it if he clips his nails in front of me, and it drives me straight up the wall if I see him cut his toenails, while sitting on the couch, and then placing the clipped nails into a little pile (I mean, he does throw them out after). He just never thought that was a private bathroom activity, as I do.

So I don't pee in front of him and he doesn't clip his nails in front of me.

Works great.

Part of being in a relationship is agreeing to drive each other nuts as little as possible. Try to consider what you do that he finds annoying, or would prefer for reasons great or small that you do or not do, and trade off.

(I too would find bad table manners extremely hard to deal w/, so I sympathize. The sound of people eating makes me sort of want to die.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:58 AM on May 8, 2009 [18 favorites]

Chazlarson has it. This is the sort of thing that you either learn to accept or you bail.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:58 AM on May 8, 2009

Amongst my family, I'm infamous for opening my mouth while chomping away. I've tried keeping it shut while eating - especially after being reminded - but after a while, I end up doing it again. I've been doing it for 30+ years after all, and my parents constantly told me off about it when I was a kid.

Reminders do help, but at the same time, being told by someone "Remember to keep your mouth shut" just before you go into dinner at a posh hotel that YOU'VE arranged makes you feel *incredibly* small.

So erm... the odd reminder, but otherwise you'll have to learn to live with it. And don't go to so many posh restaurants.
posted by almostwitty at 8:23 AM on May 8, 2009

The ones here steering you toward a conversation about how you feel are right, I think. Being increasingly assertive about his manners in-and-of-themselves won't help. Explain to him how ashamed it makes you feel in public when he eats like a manchild. If you're not afraid to go there, tell him how unattractive he is to you when he does it.

Good manners are sexy.
posted by mkultra at 8:30 AM on May 8, 2009

Good manners are sexy.

So that's what I've been doing wrong! :)

Seriously though, don't tell him you're ashamed of him - that's not very nice. The next time he does it at home just tell him to stop being so disgusting, no need to embarrass him when you're out.
posted by serak at 8:38 AM on May 8, 2009

Oh, this is so hard. This is not just some pet peeve of yours, this is someting that reflects poorly on him. There are so many situations (I'm thinking of professional situations especially) where this could actually have an adverse affect on his life. Like it or not, people make assumptions about others' abilities based on things like table manners.

Therefore, I think it's important you don't just learn to deal with it. I think, out of love for him, you keep trying.

Practice at home with a code that you both agree on. As a suggestion: when he starts with the poor manners, place a gentle hand on his knee and give him a loving smile. After all, this is not harsh criticism, this is a loving gesture. Then when you're at that nice restaurant (which, hell no, don't stop doing!!) and you place your hand sweetly on his knee, he can smile back, correct his manners, and no one is embarrassed or ridiculed and your table mates are none the wiser.
posted by agentwills at 8:39 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some behaviors are hard to change, but this is not necessarily one of them. Good manners can be learned at any age. I agree with the people who say you have to start caring at home as well. To really change he probably has to make this a habit, not something that he has to think about. If he cares about you he should work to change this behavior that you find disgusting.
posted by caddis at 8:51 AM on May 8, 2009

I couldn't deal with this myself, because poor table manners make me nauseated. I suspect that if he does all the things you describe here, he also does some things that are flat-out unhygienic--reaches into serving dishes with the fork he has been using, for instance.

I could not disagree more with this advice: Instead of getting him to do it your way, try doing it his way. This is ridiculous; bad table manners are discourteous and disrespectful at best, and (as others have pointed out) will cost him, personally and professionally, in his life.

What you're talking about here isn't some arbitrary violation of etiquette--you're not upset because he used the fish fork for his salad or anything persnickety like that. His poor table manners are rude, and eventually he will encounter someone who finds them disgusting. If that person is, say, a potential boss who is interviewing him over dinner, he's going to be SOL.

So if he wants to change, the best place to start is at home. If he doesn't want to change, that's another matter, and then you're in the "deal or bail" zone. Talk with him about how you see this situation, and listen to him about whether he wants to change.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:52 AM on May 8, 2009

Sometimes, when my wife tells me to DO X, I freak out and do just the opposite. I guess I get a little upset that "Me being me" is offensive to her. Eventually I cool off and wise up and realize that tucking in my shirt might be a good idea after all.

Point being, be gentle about it, let him know that it really, really upsets you. ANd tell him that good table manners are cool and sexy, not just a Marm-ish compulsion.
posted by GilloD at 9:10 AM on May 8, 2009

Check out this article; it has some good advice on changing others' habits. (I took social psych in college and the tips we learned on changing behavior are basically the same as what's in this article.) Good luck.

What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage
posted by phoenixy at 9:11 AM on May 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Practice at home with a code that you both agree on. As a suggestion: when he starts with the poor manners, place a gentle hand on his knee and give him a loving smile. After all, this is not harsh criticism, this is a loving gesture.

He might find this patronizing, depending on his personality. I think being direct (but not mean) about it may work better. Maybe you should start with something specific, like not licking his fingers, then work from there. That way, it doesn't sound like such a big deal.

Also, if he's not unclassy in general and just thinks table manners are not a part of being a dignified human being, maybe you can draw an analogy to some other kind of crude behavior. "How would you feel if I had a habit of farting loudly then exclaiming 'unh!' in upscale restaurants?"
posted by ignignokt at 9:16 AM on May 8, 2009

show him this thread and ask him what he thinks, as a way to talk about it?
posted by kch at 9:19 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Secretly video him, then make him watch it. A little harsh, I know, but seeing truly is believing. If after he sees the video and still doesn't get it....well, I don't know. If it really bothers you, then you've got some decisions to make.
posted by gb77 at 9:34 AM on May 8, 2009

This will be a long road, I watched my mom and father go through it. Pick one behavior at a time (finger licking, mouth open, back of hand as napkin). Stick with it. Occasionally break your good habits, encourage him to call you out on it (my father will now call my mom out for "elbows on the table" in a joking way). I won't lie, after 11 years his table manors aren't the best (I believe it's from his family) but he can "turn them on" now in a restaurant, which was the ultimate goal... at home it's not such a big deal.
posted by syntheticfaith at 9:34 AM on May 8, 2009

If Anonymous' SO does recognize the problem, and wants to do something about it, there's still another hurdle. Having Anonymous teach him might be exactly the wrong approach. This is obviously an emotionally-laden issue in the relationship; the lessons would probably be excruciating.

Are there resources that Anonymous can just point him to so he can learn on his own? Perhaps having an idea of what proper table manners are could make him realize what he's been doing wrong, and work to change it.

(And I only say this partly because I think my table manners might be atrocious, but I have no idea what to do about it.)
posted by MrVisible at 9:38 AM on May 8, 2009

Take him to England. Two seconds flat.
posted by Submiqent at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2009

Take him to England. Two seconds flat.

I don't know what you mean by this, Submiqent. Do you mean that people in England, as a group, have better table manners than people in the rest of the English-speaking world (not my experience) so he would learn from their example, or that people in England, as a group, have worse table manners than people in the rest of the English-speaking world (also not my experience) so he wouldn't stand out?

I've seen all of these behaviors described by anon in the US, Canada, and UK. I don't think any one nation has a corner on table manners.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:02 AM on May 8, 2009

It worked for me. In my mid '20s my girlfriend began the table manners training on me. Persistance and reinforcement, without nagging, gradually brought me into the civilized world.

"Please don't do that," and "That is a bit disgusting," were some of the statements I remember. It also helped to be reminded that at some point I may be eating a meal with my boss, and would really want to give a good impression.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:03 AM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't think this needs to be a matter of persuading him that his behavior at the table is disgusting and wrong and bad. (I mean, yes, it is disgusting to most people who share a table with him, but my point is that it isn't crucial for him to believe in his heart that the behavior is disgusting.) I think it would be enough for him to recognize that you, Anon, don't like it and find it annoying, and as a result for him to change his behavior. Because it's not his job as your boyfriend to agree with you, but it is his job to make your life better, not worse, and to try to do things to make you happy. (It's also your job to do the same for him.) It sounds like up until now, you've been trying to persuade him that you're right about table manners, and he's wrong. I'd try a different approach.

If I were you, I'd try something like this: "There are things you do at the table that I find embarrassing and even gross. I know we don't agree on 'proper' table etiquette, but some of these things are so off-putting, it's hard for me to enjoy eating with you. For my sake--not because you're wrong and I'm right, but just because I'm asking you, as a favor to me--could you please try to eat more slowly and not lick your fingers during dinner?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:42 AM on May 8, 2009

In engineering, it is of the utmost importance to have goals that are quantifiable, and testable. When your boss says, "We need this operating system to boot fast!" That is not testable. However, "This operating system needs to present the user with a logon challenge within 10 seconds of powering on" is discrete, and testable. Either your operating system is able to do this, or it is not.

Likewise, "I want you to have perfect table manners!" is not testable. However, "I want you to never lick your knife" is testable.

I'd advise you to come up with a list of testable activities. Looking at your post, I'd suggest:
Never lick a knife.
Never using fingers ever.
Always use a utensil to cut food before eating it.
No elbows on the table.

And then, stick to this list, and only the list. DO NOT GET MAD if he follows the list perfectly but you still think he is somehow being gross - at that point, it's not his problem, it's YOUR problem for not giving him a list that accurately describes what bothers you.
posted by spatula at 10:50 AM on May 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't think you can prove to him that his table manners are not good, any more than you could prove that dressing like a slob or being discourteous to others is not good. Making a bad impression on others is detrimental in ways that one might never know about. If he will ever be interviewing over a meal, out to lunch with a boss or potential client, at a company award dinner, or networking with others where food is involved his manners will have a very real impact -- but he will never be told that his poor manners impacted the decision not to hire him or promote him. If he wants to be self employed, this is even more important.

If you can persuade him that it might be a good idea to be able to make a good impression on others who he might be eating with (future boss, etc.), find someone else who can teach him better manners. Occasionally I see ads for a table manners class that lasts a few hours with some discussion and a meal served. These are pitched towards people who want to know the details like what fork to use and how to eat artichokes. Possibly they might gently cover things like not eating soup with your fingers, or you could contact a teacher of such things about private lessons.
posted by yohko at 11:11 AM on May 8, 2009

Like A Terrible Llama implies, I think you have to frame this as something that drives you crazy, rather than something that he is just doing wrong or is socially unacceptable or whatever - because bad table manners are going to be more and less troubling to different people, and I don't know that videotaping him would "prove" anything - he may just think he looks like he's eating. Some people stuff their faces and some people are self-aware about it and take care to eat more politely. If he thinks it's just silly to worry over, then telling him it's rude won't cut it. But telling him it really bothers you should.
posted by mdn at 11:42 AM on May 8, 2009

Wow. I went back and re-read the question because so many answers decried the terrible table manners you described, and to me they still don't seem that bad. Seems like they boil down to: he eats too fast.

What's important, though, is that they really bother you.

My advice, along the lines of A Terrible Llama and mdn, is not to make him feel inferior for the way he eats, but to ask him, as a favor to you, to be more conscious of what he does when you eat together.

You need to be very specific about what you would like to change here. For example, say, "Only take one bite at a time and chew it more before you swallow and go for more," rather than, "Don't eat like that."
posted by misha at 11:58 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the quid pro quo A Terrible Llama set up. It demonstrates that you are deadly serious. Offer up any of your own behavior that bothers him in exchange. I wouldn't threaten to not go anywhere nice, or with social embarassment or what the boss might think or video tape it - stay focused on the behavior and your feelings about the behavior. Use positive and constructive language - its likely an already touchy subject I am certain the two of you have already discussed.

also: Meg_Murry's comment: it is his job to make your life better, not worse, and to try to do things to make you happy. It's also your job to do the same for him.

And celebrate the successful - say so - its likely going to be bumpty getting started and everybody can always use a bit of encouragement.
posted by zenon at 12:16 PM on May 8, 2009

I would not do anything to embarrass him while you're eating, whether at home or out. That in itself is a terrible breach of manners and, like almostwitty said, just makes him feel small.

Guys like watching videos. They learn stuff visually more than by reading or listening. Maybe these would help, sometime after you've had the your-manners-need-work conversation? If you use funny videos that will help him remember the points more - and if you can make it an in-joke between the two of you, all the better.

Series of short table etiquette videos. These are not intentionally funny but the narrative style is such that you could have fun with them.

How to Have Topnotch Table Manners.
The actors expression is really cheesy.

Table Manners video for $30. I have not seen it, the web site says it's funny.
posted by txvtchick at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, you can mangle one of the facts from the second video to make a great one-liner/gentle reminder. The video says, "In Japan, slurping your soup is a sign of good manners." Next time he goes wild with the knife, say, "Did you know that in Japan, licking your butter knife is a sign of good manners?"

If you can do this with genuine humor and affection, he should laugh and catch himself. If you're too irritated to carry off the humor and affection part (it happens), don't use it - definitely don't embarrass him.
posted by txvtchick at 1:08 PM on May 8, 2009

There are manners and then there are manners. That is, sometimes I gorge, food sputters, and my family gets annoyed. But then I am a Great Depression baby. But I would not lick serving utensils etc...that is (by my standards) over the edge. I am going to be a bit harsh now:
when you eat with him and he is terrible with his manners, do beyond him and make him fully aware of table manners. Lick your plate while holding it up to your face. ut your fingers in the water glass and wash your hands. Pick up food with your hands rather than the fork...he will be (probably) upset and get the message that some things you simply do not do. You do not pick your nose while eating but reserve that for waiting at a stoplight in your car.
posted by Postroad at 1:15 PM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tell him honestly how his table manner make you feel. Emphasize "grossed out" and "embarassed" not how wrong he is. Then once you are sure he understands, ask him what he'd like to do about it.
If he says "Nothing, I'm fine," drop it and try to get over it, or DTMFA.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:30 PM on May 8, 2009

If this isn't costing him anything in his life (why should it?) apart from annoying then, honestly, why does it matter so much? This is all culturally relative - there's nothing about his manners (or lack of) that is intrinsically or objectively bad.

Why do you find it so objectionable? Because it's embarrassing? It's seems it only bothered you when you're in public. Who actually notices this sort of thing? Why do you give a shit anyway?

So please help me think of some better ways to explain to him that yes, his table manners are bad, and he needs to change him. Some way to prove to him that they're not good.

The problem is, there's nothing objectionable or "not good" about licking a butter knife. It's all in your head. You won't be able to persuade him that he needs to change because there's no rational argument to do so. I think you should accept this and try to love him as a whole instead of being ashamed of him.

I have what would be considered impeccable table manners, but I don't have a problem with people who eat how you describe to the extent that I want to change them.
posted by turkeyphant at 2:58 PM on May 8, 2009

Seconding turkeyphant's comments... Prior to his/her comments it was all sounding rather Orwellian, 1984 and all that. Sure you dont use your own utensils for communal dishes but otherwise everything else complained about by the poster and reinforced by a torrent of like-minded commentators sounds pretty uptight to me. Personally I dont lick my knife very often and would consider myself a fairly courteous dinner guest but the import being given to these minor issues seems a little crazy to me. Can't we all just get along?!? Oh the humanity...
posted by stumpyolegmcnoleg at 3:43 PM on May 8, 2009

A Terrible Llama has it - talk about it. Your likes and dislikes are valid, so are his. Even if there's nothing that particularly irritates him that you do, he should consider changing for your comfort. My girlfriend said something great and I always remember it. She said, if it's not that hard to do something nice for someone, why not do it? How hard can it be for him to rein it in? I mean really? If it's really that much of an imposition, he's a big old manbaby and I pity him for the tougher challenges that will come his way.

Table manners are a little bit like grammar -- there's some flex to it, but you need to know how to speak and write correctly when necessary - same goes for eating and drinking.

Also, it will make his life better in ways he might not realize (ref. others' examples about professional life etc.).
posted by nnk at 3:48 PM on May 8, 2009

If he can't act right at dinner, don't give him dessert.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 3:50 PM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Table manners are definitely learned as a kid at home. I often find myself eating too fast and not really tasting the food. This is a weight loss suggestion, but I find it helps me be more conscious at the table: I put down my fork after every bite and don't pick it up again until I've chewed and swallowed. This is usually really easy if I'm drinking wine with dinner. Setting a nice table and sitting down to eat rather than watching tv also helps me slow down.
posted by betsybetsy at 8:07 PM on May 8, 2009

Several commenters have said something similar: Your argument may carry more weight if you tell your boyfriend that when he indulges in bad table manners, it makes him look unattractive to you.

I think most people would agree that you have more control over whether another person bothers you or embarrasses you than you do over whether you're attracted to someone, because attraction is largely instinctive. When he does what he does, you're turned off, and what you imply by telling him you're turned off is that he can't reasonably expect to change your instinctive feelings about it.
posted by RobinFiveWords at 11:54 AM on May 10, 2009

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