Is There Something in My Teeth?

Dear Helena,

If you are eating with somebody and they have something really noticeable stuck in their teeth, or on their face (e.g., a giant crumb hanging off their lip), do you tell them? And if you do tell them, what’s the best and most discreet way to do it so they won’t be embarrassed? —Taking Care of My Friends

Dear Taking Care of My Friends,

Before you act, make sure the item really is a bit of food. If what you’ve noticed is actually a mole or blemish, it could be awkward—a bit like commenting on a woman’s pregnancy only to have her say, “I’m not.” You should wait a moment or two in any case, as the person may feel the crumb and brush it away of her own accord.

If the person does not remove the item, you must alert her. You’d want to know if you had a blob of mustard on your nose. So treat other people as you’d like to be treated.

If you’re dining with a group, first try a nonverbal hint. Give the person a significant look and discreetly gesture at the corresponding area of your own face. You could even blot it with a napkin. But if the person doesn’t notice the gesture, don’t keep repeating it. You’ll look like you have a nervous tic.

If you’re dining alone with the person, or if the nonverbal hint didn’t work, say something. Your goal is to let the person know what’s wrong while drawing as little attention to it as possible. Elizabeth Karmel, author of Taming the Flame and a grilling expert, likes to use a code for this purpose. She inducts friends and colleagues into what she calls “the tooth check club.” To become a member, you make a pact to murmur the phrase “tooth check” when you notice food in another member’s teeth. You also pledge to use the phrase to alert members to any other significant glitches in their appearance, from pesto on the chin to an open blouse or fly. You simply say, “Tooth check,” and use a glance or gesture to indicate the exact nature of the problem.

But while this approach is fun, it also smacks of high school. It’s easiest to be direct. However, keep it sotto voce—don’t announce the situation to the entire table. You also need not be specific, as in, “You have a glob of chewed-up bagel lodged in your mustache.” It’s more discreet if you just softly say, “You have something here.” Usually if you quickly touch the corresponding place on your face, the person will be able to locate and remove the bit of food.

You may embarrass the person a little, and thus risk a shoot-the-messenger effect: Instead of being grateful, the person may associate you with the twinge of humiliation.

But most likely the person will be glad you saved him from walking around looking foolish. Karmel recalls an incident when she was acting as publicist for a famous cardiologist on a media tour: “I was very young, and he was very famous, and he had something in his teeth. It felt embarrassing to say something. Then I thought: ‘I can be his hero and tell him, or he can go on television with spinach between his teeth.’”

Don’t let your companion endure that sad, lonely moment in the bathroom when he discovers a smear of sauce on his chin and realizes no one cared enough to let him know.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.