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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Confronting Bad Table Manners

Dear David,

I am having problems at family mealtimes. My husband’s table manners are not good—he eats like a hungry animal and spoils the dining experience. I have done my best to ignore his behavior over the years, but my teenage daughter is upset by it and I think his manners are getting worse.


Dear Disgusted,

I read your question at the end of my workday, so it was on my mind when I sat down to dinner with my wife. I can be guilty of poor table manners—eating too quickly, taking large mouthfuls, and talking while I chew. And I don’t always react well to being reminded about my table manners. After all, it’s not like I’m spilling food on the floor or eating with my hands.

I see three challenges in this conversation. First, you don’t want your husband to feel attacked or disrespected. That’s not your goal, and it would provoke defensiveness. Second, you’re dealing with an entrenched habit that will take some time and attention to change. It won’t be a single conversation. And third, because your husband will need reminders, you run the risk of coming across as a nag. Somehow you need your husband to take responsibility for making the change.

Find Mutual Purpose. Before the discussion, consider your mutual purpose. What purpose does your husband share for making the change? What goal does your husband have that his eating habits are impeding or thwarting? For example, many couples see family meals as opportunities to communicate and connect. Do you and your husband share this goal?

In addition, your husband may have other goals that are thwarted by a slow dinner. Maybe he is rushing to get to an activity. Or maybe the current dinner conversations are less about communication and connection than about tasks and assignments. Are there ways to make family dinners more convenient and pleasurable?

Describe the Gap. Start by explaining your positive intentions, and then describe what you expect and the behaviors you are observing. Avoid inflammatory language, e.g., “You eat like a hungry animal.”

Here is an example: “I’d like to see if we can use our family dinners to connect more as a family, especially with our daughter. Is it okay if I share some specifics that I think would help?” Give your husband a chance to respond here. You want to create safety so he won’t feel attacked.

Be ready to present your issue. For example, “I have noticed that you eat very fast, making dinner time feel more like a race than a time to be together. I’d like us to spend more time together over meals, and to include more conversation. Are you aware of how fast you eat?” Again, give your husband time to respond. Listen to his perspective, but don’t lose track of the issue you want to address.

Be ready to respond and reinforce the behavior you want to change. For example, “I would like you to slow down when you eat and help all of us take advantage of the time we have together.”

Check with your daughter before you bring her into this discussion. Make sure you aren’t hiding behind your daughter—that you present this issue as your concern. But also, don’t keep your daughter’s concerns a secret from your husband. Every father has a right to know when he’s spoiling a relationship with one of his children.

Get His Buy-In. If he is on board about the the broad issue, you can then ask for permission to remind him. Our eating habits are both personal and tough to change. We’ve practiced them so often that they’ve become a part of our automatic pilot. Even when we want to change, we fail to notice when we slip into our old ways. Ask your husband whether it’s okay to remind him when you see him slip, and together develop a cue that won’t be embarrassing. For example, you might use a question like, “What was the high point of your day?”

Actually Remind Him. It’s inevitable your husband will slip, and exhibit his bad table manners. Let’s suppose you see him take a giant bite out of a pork chop, argue a point while balancing a meatball on his tongue, or pick his back molars with his index finger. Use your cue, and, if necessary, talk to him later in private. Remind yourself that when your husband slips, it’s not because he doesn’t care. It takes time to change long-standing habits.

Focus on a Positive Vital Behavior. If you determine that one of the purposes for having your husband eat slower is to improve family connections during meals, then you can take some positive steps that will help promote the kind of exchange you desire.

I’ll share one strategy you can use to promote dialogue among all parties at the table. I learned it from Al Switzler, my VitalSmarts colleague. It’s a game that’s designed to build and practice conversational skills.

Having a conversation is like playing tennis. One person serves up the topic, and then you both volley the conversation back and forth. The goal is to keep the conversation in play. If I serve up the topic, then your role is to respond to my volley in a way the keeps the conversation alive. After a while we switch servers, so the other person has to come up with topics to discuss.

Imagine that you, your husband, and your daughter practiced this conversation game for at least part of your dinner meal. It’s incompatible with speed eating, and it contributes to your long-term mutual purpose. Try to have your husband, not you, take the lead on explaining and initiating this kind of activity.

Finally, be patient, and put this problem into its proper perspective. Many habits are much worse than bad table manners, but few are harder to change.

Best wishes,
David Maxfield

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

22 thoughts on “Confronting Bad Table Manners”

  1. Jason Martin

    First I want to say how much I enjoy the books. I have recently introduced the concepts in my training classes at my company and the awareness and tools are very powerful.

    I agree this is a sensitive issue and one that was also in my family. Based on watching my mother and father I might also suggest that Disgusted take a look at other ways she might be contributing to the situation. Not so much the speed eating, but defensiveness on the part of her husband. If she has ‘nagged’ or even passively indicated her displeasure on other topics bringing up this situation will look a lot like those and may provoke a similar response. Also, I would be curious to know specifically what she means by “I have tried to ignore…” Does she cluck her tongue or has she already nagged, even a little? If so, she may need to acknowledge her role in the situation – much like wife in Crucial Conversations who addresses the differing intimacy needs in her marriage.

    Thanks again for doing such great work!!


    1. Mike Radke

      This is a great example of a specific “problem behavior” and how to address it. But it illustrates the principles in a crucial conversation so well. I went thru the message and response a second time and labeled the principles of crucial conversation. Found them all. This is one of my ways of learning — identify the general principles involved in a change, look for specific opportunities to use these principles, then label the principles. It is helpful to label both examples and NON-examples, so I learn what to do and what not to do.

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  3. Iola Rohrer

    I’m a grandma now, but long ago, before your truly groundbreaking Crucial Conversations, my family had occasional dinner “opportunities” to bring up ONE annoying trait or habit that, if it were changed, would increase the likeability of the “annoying” person and perhaps even reduce tensions around the house. We were a family of 4, 2 parents and 2 children in high school. Everyone knew one day in advance of the opportunity, and each person was assigned one family member as a “target” for the evening, so that no one could gang up on a family member. It was a fun, and productive evening. I remember being told that I’d been talking about going on a diet for years. They wanted to know if it was “a 12-year diet, or if not, maybe I should either stop talking about it, or DO it! I did it! Another item I heard about was how annoying it was to have me be late picking the children up from private school — it was rude and inconsiderate! I’d often just want to complete a project before I left home. In my busy life, “completion” felt very good! But my kids were right, and I changed. Oh, one more: I’d started making a stupid “grunting” sound when standing up from the sofa, like an old lady. The kids didn’t like listening to the habit, and suggested the “grunt” didn’t actually help me get up! Comments weren’t always kind, but they were honest, and we were all equally vulnerable, ready to laugh, and ready to change habits.

  4. Joseph Molenda

    (For author David Maxfield)

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your advice to “Disgusted” on correcting the bad table manners of her husband (9/8/2010). You mentioned a lot of effective strategies, but one vital point seemed absent. It’s one that is especially important if long-standing bad behavior is to be changed. That point is: recognize and praise positive progress.

    For example, if a topical dinner conversation goes particularly well, the wife could tell her husband, “You know, I really enjoyed our conversation at dinner tonight, especially when you were talking with our daughter. How did you feel about it?” Or, “Sarah and I noticed that you seemed much more relaxed at dinner tonight. How did it seem to you?” Or, “Thanks for sharing your day with us tonight. It’s great to hear about your work and interests.”

    Getting the person to respond to behavior initiatives is a good start, but sustaining the behavioral change is the goal. To permanently change his/her behavior, a person must get something better or greater from the change than what they got from how they have behaved. Positive reinforcement of behavior improvement can help the temporary change(s) last—and grow.

    Joseph Molenda

  5. David Maxfield

    It’s interesting how much heat is generated by our little foibles. I think Jason is right to consider both parties in the interaction. Often we find ourselves in a vicious cycle, where our own behavior helps to perpetuate the other person’s bad behavior. The good news is that, if we can identify our own role, we can often change it–and break the cycle.

    I love Iola’s example. Creating a time and place for crucial conversations–and making them safe–will encourage even little problems to be addressed before they become larger or a part of a vicious cycle.

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Jessie

    I think my husband’s answer to your question: “I’d like to see if we can use our family dinners to connect more as a family, especially with our daughter. Is it okay if I share some specifics that I think would help?” will ALWAYS be “NO”. So that gets him a free pass so he NEVER has to change anything.

    1. Fiona

      That would likely be my husbands response too. ?

  7. buffalobirdieJC

    This is all nice, but futile. You have to have a partner who might actually be willing to hear this kind of constructive criticism. I love my husband and he is a wonderful caring man. But one thing he NEVER yields to are attempts to change him. Oh. NEVER. He just won’t. It is a personal affront to him if someone suggests he should change any personal hygiene or etiquette habits. I simply have to live with the fact that he smacks when he eats and that he jams his fork and knife into slabs of meat without any sense of proper technique. The only way I have learned to turn a blind eye is to focus on my OWN table manners and making them better and practicing being poised, polite and gracious when in public and the company of others.

  8. Hazura Jane

    I think the person with the bad table manners already has a ‘safe place’ around them -created by their offensive behavior. If a person displays bad table manners here’s a radical idea: JUST TELL THEM. “Please, would you NOT pick at your teeth while I’m trying to eat?” Etc. These are deal-breakers when it comes to dining with someone.

  9. South Texas

    I am in a committed relationship with a wonderful, considerate, guy and someone with whom I would not offend for the world. Table manners are any the only complaint, i.e., smacking and at times eating with an open mouth full of food can ruin any of meals with my partner. This is the only habit which bothers me greatly, and I have gracefully tried directly and indirectly to change. Is there anyone who has learned to desensitize themselves so it no longer bothers them? I would appreciate any help with my problem which can quickly turn me into a bad mood.

    1. Laurie

      Yes, be grateful you have someone to eat with.

  10. Glenn H.

    My wife smacks and slurps her food, all the time. Is there an Article that explains what not do when chewing foods ? So i can share it with her ?

  11. bayi pirmi tuya

    I’d like to know what the responses are, to your question. I expect that the advice would be similar to my situation involving my beloved older cousin who gargles her drinking water at the dinner table or in the kitchen in the company of everyone and anyone. How do I let her know that she shouldn’t do it, and should instead do it in the bathroom in private? Writing her a private note is something I’ve considered, but I am afraid she’d still be hurt and embarrassed and maybe even offended. On the other hand, I realize that I don’t feel as inhibited if it were my sister or my mother. I guess in their case I’m pretty sure they’d completely understand and appreciate my concern, and they’d most likely conclude that I am advising them for their own good to protect them from embarrassment in polite company. Opinions and suggestions please.

  12. Bayi

    My beloved older cousin gargles her drinking water at the dinner table, and in the kitchen with others standing around. I don’t know how to tell her, and when, and how, that what she is doing is something that should privately be done inside the bathroom. I tried once to tell her that she should gargle only in the bathroom, and not while eating with others, but she merely looked genuinely puzzled. I think she honestly does not see it as bad manners. Any comments or suggestions will be very welcome.

  13. Laurie

    Apologies for tardiness to the table on this one. Topic came up when our lovable resident food police ruined a perfectly good meal for all.

    Food policing promotes indigestion and heartburn for all.

    First thoughts are: we need to learn to be grateful for each meal and each person we get to share food and comapny with.

    Seond thought: why are physiological and cultural reasons not explored?

    Hungry people eat faster than satiated people. Plan and prepare to have meals ready sooner and involve everyone in meal preparation.

    Teenage children are not equal partners in a marriage between two adults. Sullen teens are positive proof that adulting skills begin in childhood, including contributing to getting meals on the table and learning that there always will be a head of table -and it likely is not you.

    This couple needs a supper date without teen angst.

    Etiquette is a cultural entity. My husband is of British descent and I, European. He eats with one piece of cutlery at a time and I eat with two. Continent style dining is consumed much faster than the single utensil style. It takes some getting use to unless you attend state dinners, where you wait for the head of table to start eating and stop when they stop eating.

    In every culture that I have lived in globally, it is incredibly rude to discuss critical points of view at meal time. Fully tummies allow better absorption of crucial conversations and bad news.

    When we know better we do better -so ask permission and record a family meal time so that everyone can find some behaviours and attitudes to improve upon. Make it a team project rather than a feeding frenzy.

  14. Myra

    I work with someone who eats like that at work and I am embarressed! I know it is a learned behavior from childhood. I don’t think that this person is starving. I have been working with this person for 5 years and have seen them in various settings at work and and behavior never changes.

  15. Sam

    Dear David,
    I enjoy reading your insights into the various topics. They usually include the different points of view, allowing for a better understanding of the situation. With the bad table manners situation I wish to share my experiences with you.
    I have found that table manners sometimes are a cultural behaviour which may not be seen as a priority within certain groups. Eating with hands, eating too fast, talking with a full mouth and getting up during the meal can sometimes be considered as norms. To try to correct this behaviour may even be frowned upon, considered as bad manners and would be culturally insensitive.
    I sometimes need to remind myself that other cultural behaviours and views are just as important as mine are. After all, I appreciate it when people do not reprimand me or try to change my eating behaviour when I am eating slower, using utensils and not answering until I have cleared my mouth.

  16. Art

    “After all, it’s not like I’m spilling food on the floor or eating with my hands.”
    So, what if the issue IS eating with hands? Not something like a sandwich…think spaghetti with marinara.

  17. Amanda L Schulz

    I don’t want to have meaningful conversations during dinner I simply wish to eat my meal without having to listen to someone stabbing into their food like they’re an inmate at chow time and then proceed to pack their face full of as much food as possible before beginning the chewing and swallowing process. I’d like to not listen to teeth scraping across the utensil. I’d like to not be handed a fork when sharing dessert that’s got all the remnants of the last bite because he scraped the good off with his teeth instead of putting his lips against it.
    I’ve got two small boys to teach meal time etiquette to, now I have to teach their 40 year old father too?

  18. rama ananth

    I have a husband who is Diabetic, has high BP and also Cholesterol. He is on medication on all the three problems. My problem is he has started loving sweets, he likes spicy food and he loves oily food too, all that can worsen his health.
    I don’t nag him not to eat all these stuffs, I only tell him to eat a little of everything, and not everything he likes at the same time. But nothing seems to have any effect on him, he doesn’t care if I ignore his bad habits also nor does it bother him, that sometimes I get really mad at him, because his health really worries me.
    I have tried everything in the book, but everything just falls on deaf ears.
    I hate to be a nagging wife, and I am getting fed of telling him in a nice way to look after his health.
    Because of all this tension, I am falling sick. When he was young he wasn’t like this, but for the last 15 years or so he has started getting into these bad eating habits, and has developed all these health conditions In spite of being admitted in the hospital twice, once for his sugar level, he had to go through an emergency surgery, once recently for his high BP, he is not mending his ways.
    Please don’t even suggest some treatment, etc. for him, for he is never going to listen to anything.
    I need help to handle his health, and his addictions in a harmonious way.
    Am I doing anything wrong? What can be done? Other than this, he is a very nice person, and is very patient, and also very helpful without being asked. That is why, I don’t want to lose him to any of the above conditions. He is 70 years old, not a baby to be told what is good and what is bad. Plus he is running a thriving business, and is very dedicated to it, and right now he is trying to find a good buyer for his company. With all these things still hanging around how can I make him understand that he needs to live to get everything done properly.

    Rama Ananth.

  19. Katie

    I have had this problem with my husband for 25 years and have said something. Some times gently, sometimes not so much because he seems to have gotten worse. (no one is going to tell him what to do). My sons have used this against me as if I am bullying their dad and now they have no manners either. They are adults and shout me down. I am heartbroken as this type of behavior extends to all areas of their life and they have no respect for me. It is a poor dad scenario as he continues to do nothing. He has never cooked a meal with the exception of picking up a pizza and throwing on a few hot dogs. I now blame my husband because he has the most influence and it is easier not to make an effort than to make one. I feel sorry for my sons. I saw other women have a positive influence over their husbands and family; and I never have had that influence. They have all resented it. I thought by giving to them and doing for them would give them a role model to emulate but they just expect more and more.

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