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Smack Down 

What's the proper course of action when a friend says you make too much noise when you eat?

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
Dear Social Grace,

Recently, two friends, independently of one another, told me that I make a lot of noise when I chew. One of them even said that if I couldn't learn to eat more quietly, he'd rather not share meals with me. I took this seriously and made an effort to listen to myself. I learned that these two are right ... up to a point. Every once in a while when I'm chewing, my lips part slightly and a little smacking sound emerges. But I really don't think I'm a big slob.

Consider, please, that I am in my 40s and have shared thousands of meals in my lifetime. Before these two, nobody has ever mentioned it, and I have no recollection of this being an issue with my parents when I was young (though I must grant that my mother is deaf in one ear).

So I asked my ex-boyfriend, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my best buddy to level with me: Am I a noisy eater? They all said no.

What should I make of this? Is the burden on me to be highly conscious of the way I eat when I am with these two friends, or should I tell them they are being overly sensitive and that it's their problem? And how does this play out in society in general? Is the world divided into those who notice the sound of eating and those who don't? Should I be thinking, as one of these two friends said, of all the parties I will never be invited to?

A San Francisco Eater

Dear Eating Madam or Sir,

What would we do without friends? While it's true that chewing should in the main be a quiet activity, having never heard you chew, I can't say whether your friends' objection to your occasional "smacking sound" is justifiable or unreasonable. (The description is, I'll permit, unsettling.) Each of us is peculiarly sensitive to certain sounds.

One should always be "highly conscious" of how one eats: It's a very important activity. If two dear friends (and I hope they are very dear friends) had let me in on this fact -- after what was surely much soul-searching on their part -- I'd want to correct the problem. It's possible, for example, that your ex-boyfriend has grown numb to your minor bad habits.

If your mouth opens against your will while you're chewing, smaller bites might be in order. If you could keep your mouth closed around your food, the noise might go away. Alternatively, there may be a physical reason for your smacking (such as a stuffy nose, causing you to open your mouth to breathe); consider seeing a dentist or doctor.

Whether you're willing to do what it takes or not, your friends have made their dining conditions clear. We can assume that they've already tried to "get over it," and the decision is now yours. Is decorum or relaxation more important to you at the dinner table? Either way, please don't spend too many sleepless nights worrying about parties you'll never be invited to; it's a terrible form of insomnia (several Social Grace staffers haven't slept a wink since the Oscars). Besides, I suspect that the annual Smack-o-phobes Dinner Party would not be an event you would enjoy.

Dear Social Grace,

The question from Mark in your column "I Now Pronounce You Greedy" [March 20], having to do with his being dropped without a word from a woman he had been dating, had, I believe, a very poor response from you.

No, he should not be rude, but he should communicate to her, in any way that is convenient and non-threatening, that she is inconsiderate. If he is brave enough, he could ask what it was about him that turned her off. He should end with the Golden Rule: Do unto others, etc.

At least this puts her on notice that her behavior is unacceptable. If she fears that he will become a crazed revenger, as some men do when rejected, then he can try to reassure her that he is not like that, and would have appreciated knowing that she was ending with him.

In any case, I can't believe that you have never been on the receiving end of such behavior, and that the person you cared about just dropped you without any distress on your part.

Lester Marks

Dear Mr. Marks,

What would you have a woman say after four dates with a man she doesn't want to see again: "I've met someone better"? "You chew too loudly"? Perhaps the obvious lie "It's not you; it's me"? Since you've brought up the subject of my personal life, I'll admit that I've had the last statement addressed to me after a few casual dates -- and I would have preferred abrupt silence (which at least allows the possibility that the person in question was crushed by a train and died whispering my name).

You and I share a fondness for the Golden Rule. I, however, feel that the Golden Rule precludes unsolicited lecturing of acquaintances. Perhaps this woman has suffered a terrible personal misfortune that prevented her from phoning this fellow, to whom she owed only a "No, thank you." More likely, she's just a bit inconsiderate of others, in which case a phone call from a jilted lover isn't going to change her ways. And why would our poor suitor want to hear how he "turned her off"? She's apparently a lousy source of personal-behavior advice, and he'd be better off asking people who know him well for such tips. Besides, most of us are all too aware of our major flaws. (In addition, it's always the crazy, bloodthirsty, and revengeful ones who are the first to say, "I'm not like that." We've only heard one side of this story.)

We can also agree that failing to return phone calls and neglecting to answer invitations is rude. But four dates doesn't always constitute a relationship (which does require an explanation -- at least! -- to get out of). My taking this fact to heart has largely prevented extreme sadness when people I've recently met decide they do not, after all, want to fall madly in love with me.

Dear Social Grace,

I recently went out to dinner with my boyfriend. We were celebrating, so I splurged and bought a $300 bottle of wine. What is the appropriate amount to tip on bottles of wine served in a restaurant?

Don't Order the Wine After Too Many Cocktails

P.S. And when you leave a table at a restaurant (e.g., to excuse yourself or to use the restroom), is it considered inappropriate to leave your napkin on the table? My boyfriend says you should leave your napkin on your chair whenever you leave the table. Please settle the bet.

P.P.S. The wine was awesome.

Dear Drinking Madam or Sir,

Thank you for signing your letter with some wise advice that most people have to learn the hard way. The cost of wine should be included in the bill's total when you calculate your tip, unless a wine steward assisted you. In such a case, the wine is not included in the total, and you should leave a separate tip -- 15 to 20 percent of the wine's cost if the steward helped you select a wine, or 10 percent if he simply took your wine order and poured. (You can leave the tip with the food server or maitre d', but the wine steward will generally turn up near the end of your meal to ask if you want more wine, and you can tip him in cash then.)

I'm afraid your bet is hard to settle; perhaps you could take the amount involved and put it toward another nice bottle of wine. When you excuse yourself from the table, your napkin may properly be left on your chair or at the left side of your plate. However, many etiquette experts (myself included) prefer it on the chair, where no one else can see the stray food that didn't make it into your mouth. Putting a napkin on the table sometimes indicates that you've finished eating. (At a formal dinner, for example, the hostess' napkin on the table is a signal that dinner is over.)

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