You Can’t Take Him Anywhere

Dear Helena,
Some of my closest friends, with whom I enjoy swank dinner affairs where traditional etiquette and table manners are expected and appreciated (we are talking Southern “Silver Queens” who really know how to party), have always invited me to the most entertaining events in their homes. I consider myself a “life of the party” kind of girl who can make people laugh and feel relaxed and can adapt to any social environment, but since I have become engaged to my boyfriend of seven years and I do not wish to leave him alone on a Friday night, I find myself no longer invited to as many of these fun parties as before.

He is very different from me when it comes to his sensitivity towards others at the dinner table: He is a bit crude and crass, he eats a bit messily and quickly, and he does not know the proper rules of etiquette at the table. He is like a bull in a china shop (literally!) when he is seated at a delicate table with fine china, sterling, and crystal. He even critiques the dishes by saying how much more of this or that spice it could use, or how it could be cooked differently. I know that he does not mean to be offensive—he is just so excited about food and cooking that he enjoys discussing it—but the host/hostess I know may be offended. His behavior can sometimes spill over into conversations as well (he frequently uses swear words as a way to be humorous, for example).

However, I love him and would not trade him for my friends, but I would really like to be included in the dinner invites once again, and him as well. I not only want us to be included, I want to feel like he is my “life of the party” counterpart who knows just what to do at the table and I do not have to wince at his statements (he already is the life of the party among some circles, so I know that he is capable). What can I do without being a nag? Should I expect him to alter his behavior so that we can “fit in” together in this crowd?
—Needing a Man with Manners

Dear Needing a Man with Manners,
People often write to me to complain about their rude spouses, friends, or co-workers and ask me how to reform them. Sometimes I advise them to overlook other people’s blunders, but at other times it’s right to step in. A rule of thumb: If someone’s behavior is hurting other people, then it’s time for an etiquette intervention. So when your fiancé knocks over a wineglass or vacuums up his food at twice the rate of the other guests, you should turn a blind eye. But criticizing a host’s cooking is hurtful, and you should tell him to stop.

Warning: This could go horribly wrong.

Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, says: “New research says criticism from your partner is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain.” In other words, telling your fiancé he has no manners is like stabbing him with a fork.

To avoid triggering a defensive reaction, you need to have what Johnson calls a “hold me tight” conversation: one in which your partner feels loved and secure. Don’t frame your remarks as a criticism of him. You might want to start the conversation by stating that you like that your fiancé always has such specific comments on people’s cooking—specific comments are more memorable. Then frame your critique as an “I statement,” talking about how his behavior makes you feel. For example: “However, a lot of people are really sensitive about their cooking, and when you tell someone the pork chops were overcooked, I feel worried that they will be upset.”

Your fiancé’s other gaffes—such as the clumsiness and excessive swearing—might stem from nervousness around your highfalutin friends. That’s easily solved. Just arrange a social event where he can get to know them in a more relaxed setting. For instance, invite your friends to a picnic. You might be surprised how everyone loosens up when lounging on a blanket (a thermos of martinis will help, too).

Next time you’re invited to a formal dinner, your fiancé will be more relaxed, and so less likely to knock the gravy boat on the floor. He’ll probably still pick up his pork chop to gnaw on it, but your host will know what a fun guy her guest is and will overlook the faux pas.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.