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You are how you eat

Posted by Peter Post August 28, 2012 07:00 AM

When you are eating with other people, how you eat your food affects the way the people think about you.

I learned this lesson when I talked to a group of women about things men do that are really gross, especially at the dinner table. I asked them specifically, ”What could a man do that would guarantee he wouldn’t get second date?” They were unanimous: “Chew his food with his mouth open.” Ugh. Disgusting. Right up there with chewing with an open mouth was talking with a mouth full of food. Not only are both these behaviors gross, worse yet they’re memorable—and not in a good way.

That’s one of the interesting things about etiquette. Some manners are simply things we do or don’t do, but they aren’t deal breakers. Eating with the wrong fork is a perfect example. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter which fork you use. No one is really going to notice if you use a salad fork instead of a dinner fork. And if they do, they wouldn’t (shouldn't) make a fuss about it.

However, a major faux pas like chewing with your mouth open really is a deal breaker. Do that on a date with any of the ladies in my focus group and you won’t get a second date. Now imagine you are at a lunch that is part of a job interview. (No, they’re not taking you to lunch just to be nice.) The interviewer will be assessing your dining skills, and how you will represent the company when you are with clients, prospects or suppliers. Yes, you might get dinged a few points for using the wrong fork; but chew with your mouth open and the interview’s over. Guaranteed, you won’t get the job.

Here are seven deal breakers to watch out for when eating with others:

  1. Chewing with you mouth open.
  2. Talking with your mouth full of food.
  3. Shoveling your food into your mouth as though you are in a race.
  4. Sneezing without turning away and covering up.
  5. Ignoring others at the table or not taking part in the conversation.
  6. Dominating the conversation.
  7. Not thanking your host at the end of the meal.

“No, Thank You.”

Posted by Peter Post August 21, 2012 07:00 AM

Recently, I was interviewed on a radio show about the importance of words purportedly taught us by our mothers: “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” Please and thank you are no-brainers. We know we should say them, although there are times we don’t, and that’s when we come across as demanding, self-centered, or downright rude. “You’re welcome” on the other hand isn’t a regular part of discourse today.

When we say please, we are asking someone to do something; but if we fail to say please, then we’re demanding it: “Please, Bob, would you get me the newspaper?” as opposed to, “Bob, get me the newspaper.” Just reading those words conveys two very different attitudes—one pleasant and considerate, the other strident.

When we fail to say thank you, we demonstrate that we simply expected the other person to do what was asked. Saying nothing, or grunting an acknowledgment, tells Bob that his effort isn’t worthy of your attention. Conversely, saying thank you shows appreciation for what another person has done for us. “Bob, thank you for getting the paper for me,” is the best way to acknowledge Bob’s effort on your behalf. There’s a world of difference between appreciating a person’s effort on your behalf and simply expecting them to do something without making the acknowledgment effort.

The place most of us fall down is in the use of “You’re welcome.” Most times when someone says “Thank you,” we automatically say “Thank you” in reply, or, even worse, “Oh, no, thank you.” Both these responses trump a person’s thank you. An alternative you hear a lot is, “No problem” or “It was nothing.” At least in these cases the response isn’t an attempt to one-up the thank you, but it doesn’t acknowledge it, either.

The best response of all is a simple, sincere, “You’re welcome.” It expresses that we heard what was said, and we appreciate it. Once said, then feel free to follow with your own thank you.

Of course, all this is easier said than done, especially getting into the habit of saying, “You’re welcome.” At the end of that radio show, the host thanked me for being on, and before I could stop myself, I replied, “Thank you.” I should have listened to my own advice and said, “You’re welcome; and thank you for having me on.” Next time.

Your Opinions About Cell Phones In Restrooms

Posted by Peter Post August 14, 2012 07:00 AM

In July I posted a survey asking people their opinion about cell/smart phone use in public restrooms. As expected, when asked, “Should people refrain from using cell/smart phones in public restrooms,” a whopping 85.5% of you frowned on the practice. Commenters to the column were quite frustrated by the disregard shown them by the person on the phone at a private, personal moment.

What was interesting was the split opinion about the next question: “If you are uncomfortable with a person near you using a cell/smart phone in a public restroom, is it okay to ask them to put it away?” 56.5% of you said “No” while 43.5% said, “Yes.”

So, while people expressed near unanimity about their dislike of cell/smart phone usage in a public restroom, when it comes to pointing out the behavior, there's more of a split decision. Even so, a majority did think that asking the perpetrator to stop is not the right approach.

As we interact with people every day, we must decide what kind of issue becomes important enough to point out another person’s questionable behavior and ask them to change it. Generally speaking, I am in agreement with the majority on this question. While I abhor the practice, I probably am not going to say something directly to a person talking on a phone in a public restroom.

And what about those ambient noises? Some commenters felt that trying to quiet restroom noises wasn’t necessary. Certainly, I think you should still flush, and you should still wash your hands. If those noises are heard by the person on the other end of the call, that is not your problem. On the other hand, I would not recommend going out of your way to be excessively noisy, but going about your business in your usual fashion is perfectly reasonable.

Thank you for answering the poll.

“My Friend Keeps Sending Me Emails…”

Posted by Peter Post August 7, 2012 07:00 AM

I’m sitting on my porch in Vermont on an absolutely beautiful summer’s eve. Everything seemed perfect until my friend says, “By the way I have an etiquette question for you.”

My antenna went up as the tranquility of the perfect evening was threatened.

“I have this friend, the sweetest friend,” she went on, “but he keeps sending me emails—you know, scenic pictures, stories, jokes. I keep deleting them, but I feel guilty. What do I do? How can I stop him from sending them to me?”

Clearly, she was between a rock and a hard place: continue to deal with the numerous unsolicited emails or risk saying something to her friend that would make him feel unappreciated and hurt the friendship.

Realistically, she has two choices, say something and stop the emails, or put up with the emails, delete them, and learn to accept her guilt. Taking the first path, she could say something like, “Tom, I really enjoy you but would you mind taking me off your distribution list? I’d really appreciate it.” There’s no telling for sure how Tom will feel about the request. He may not be bothered at all or he may be peeved that his friend doesn’t like what he is sharing. Unfortunately, my friend simply has no way of knowing what he will feel. So, I told her she needs to assess how important it is to her that the emails stop, because no matter how gentle she might be in communicating with him, the result might be a hurt relationship.

In the final analysis we settled on choice number two: keep deleting the emails. He’s a friend, and it’s really not that painful to look at and delete these emails and who knows, maybe every once in a while there will be one that brings a smile to her face. That’s a much better result than potentially damaging a dear friendship.

While in this situation saying nothing is the right choice for my friend, that may not always be the case. For instance, the emails may be offensive or push a belief you don’t share or the person really isn’t a friend, and you’d prefer not to be receiving those emails. In that case asking the person to take you off their distribution list may be the right thing to do. Just be gentle in your request. You don’t have to explain that you find the emails offensive or that you disagree with the person; just ask.

About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. The column is distributed by The New York Times More »

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