Is It Ever Appropriate to Correct Someone's Table Manners?
Whether you're inspired to gently correct a coworker who has her elbows on the table at a company dinner or you can't stop yourself from criticizing the way your partner chews with his mouth open, trying to improve someone else's table manners is nearly always an uncomfortable conversation. Which is why experts agree you have only one polite recourse for addressing the way someone else behaves at the table: ignore it completely.
"Correcting someone else's mistake is an implicit form of criticism," says Sharon Schweitzer of Access to Culture—and even implicit criticism is generally impolite. "Since etiquette is fluid, and rests on a foundation of consideration, respect, and honesty, correcting someone publicly would sting. It wouldn't reflect consideration for others or self-respect; that person and others at the table wouldn't ever feel comfortable in your presence again," she says. In short: "It's better to mind your own manners," says Schweitzer, "rather than someone else's manners."
Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas, agrees. "There is no way to politely correct another person's table manners without running the risk of insulting them or hurting their feelings," she says. "Chances are, unless you have had some formal training—not your grandmother's manners—you don't know all of the rules, either."
Some table manners vary by cuisine or tradition, points out Daniel Post Senning of The Emily Post Institute, which means drawing attention to a fellow diner who isn't sure which fork to start with or where his bread plate is can create an embarrassing moment (for both of you). "That's trickier, because it's not about someone's decisions in the moment, it's about their exposure to those traditions," he says. "It can end up feeling like you're calling someone out for not knowing." So, offer a helpful, private assist if you notice that someone is unsure or uncomfortable with a phrase like, "You know, something I always do is…" which doesn't draw attention to a mistake. This may be better received, or even appreciated. "I call it the 'broccoli on the tooth' rule," he says. "If you can help someone avoid awkwardness or embarrassment by addressing something a little awkward or difficult, most people will appreciate it."
Though correcting a family member or friend is just as rude as correcting a stranger, you have one advantage: Your loved one knows you mean well. "If it's something that's egregious and correctable, there is a spirit of friendly assist that you can use with people you are close to," says Senning, noting, again, it's often best to just skip over the error. "It's hard to address anyone's behavior about anything and eating is such a personal thing, such a habitual action—it can be really hard."
Good etiquette is about making people comfortable, which means pointing out a manners mistake—like the way someone reaches across the table for the salt and pepper or slurps her soup—is often worse than the mistake itself. "Keep in mind that the Queen of England regularly overlooks breaches of royal etiquette without so much as a raised eyebrow," says Schweitzer. "In fact, she has been known to mimic minor faux pas that her guests have committed to prevent them from feeling any awkwardness." And if you insist on calling attention to someone else's gaffe, prepare yourself for the backlash. "A manners mistake—not a big deal," says Senning. "A mistake of character—that really matters."