I Don’t Care If She’s Family

Dear Helena,

I’m married to a wonderful man with wonderful table manners (well, we’re working on a few minor things). His mother, on the other hand, has horrendous manners, and is frankly embarrassing to take to dinner. Even at a casual dining place, she stands out. My MIL talks with her mouth completely full, uses her fingers on her food (and not finger food, either), waters down her wine, slurps, and is (most inexcusably) rude to the waitstaff. And loud. I love her dearly—really!—but I have no idea what to do. Is there any way to politely correct her? We’re moving to Europe, where such bad manners are even more inappropriate, and I have horrible visions of never being able to return to someplace I’ve been with her. —Dreading Dinner

Dear Dreading Dinner,

If the person is an adult, it’s not OK to criticize her table manners, any more than you may tell her to stand up straight, get a haircut, or clean her bathroom once in a while. The only time you can tell someone not to talk with her mouth full is if that person is your child.

You should, of course, have a heart-to-heart if someone’s lack of etiquette is hurting your feelings—for instance, if he or she ignores your party invitations or never says thank you for dinner. But your MIL’s behavior isn’t directed at you. It’s like a hairy mole on her chin: It might be gross, but it’s not a personal insult.

In any case, at this point in your MIL’s life, an etiquette intervention probably wouldn’t be much help. We learn table manners in childhood, so they are deeply ingrained. Nothing will persuade your MIL to become a polite eater, short of behavior therapy or full-scale hypnosis.

Granted, it’s hard to ignore someone’s disgusting eating habits. I know a person who enthusiastically blows his nose on his napkin and moments later mops his brow with it. He also minces everything on his plate into mush before he eats it, and if he has a bit of food stuck in his teeth, he uses a thumbnail to winkle it out. This used to make me cringe. Then I hit on the idea of pretending he’s from another country with different, fascinating customs. Table manners, of course, are culturally relative. In India, people eat with their fingers. In Japan, it’s polite to slurp soup.

Rather than have to confront the spectacle full-on, sit cater-corner from your MIL, or off-center. If you’re embarrassed by her shrieking voice and yahoolike ways, ask for a table away from the door, preferably behind some potted plants. If possible, seat her so that her back is toward the rest of the dining room.

Of course, it’s much harder to look the other way when someone’s bad manners are hurting other people—in this case, the waitstaff. Maybe your husband has a trusting and enlightened relationship with his mother and can simply tell her the truth. But I suspect she’ll take offense. I suggest you first try a more oblique approach. You’re moving to Europe, so simply treat her to a riff about European customs. “It’s different in Europe: The customer isn’t always right. People are so polite to servers.”

If your MIL doesn’t get the message, then it might be tempting to roll your eyes at the servers every time she barks a command or sloshes water into a glass of lovely wine. But this would be a betrayal. Instead, just leave a very big tip. If she’s the one paying, keep in mind that you may have to slip back and toss in a few extra euros.

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