Well meaning or just mean?

When I teach dining etiquette I often tell a story that my neighbor shared with me. When she was a teenager she went to her boyfriend’s house for dinner. She picked up her bread roll, cut it in half with her knife and buttered the whole piece. Her boyfriend loudly announced that she was eating her bread wrong. My poor neighbor was mortified. She had no idea there was a right or wrong way to eat bread. Perhaps her boyfriend thought he was being helpful. But actually, he made his girlfriend feel very embarrassed. Yes, she will never eat bread that way again, but the fact she shared that story with me tells me she still feels the shame of being told she was doing something “the wrong way.”

Well-meaning advice is often neither. When we give people unsolicited advice, especially when we tell them they are wrong, rather than helping, we alienate. There is a reason my neighbor broke up with her boyfriend and ended up marrying a man who doesn’t correct her manners.

People can have strong opinions about manners. When I am presenting or giving a company training, almost without fail I’m asked by a participant if they can tell their boss, friend, husband, coworker, etc. that they ________ (insert bad manner here).  And, my response is always the same – no, unless it’s your child or a direct employee and you are sharing the information carefully. Rather than shaming you want to deliver the news in a way that preserves the other person’s self-esteem. Such as, “Bob, you did a great job of leading the lunch meeting with Jane Client today. You kept us on track and presented the company information very clearly. I noticed you asked if you could eat something on Jane’s plate. You may not be aware that asking to eat someone else’s food can make them feel uncomfortable. I remember reading in an etiquette book that what’s on your plate belongs to you and what’s on another person’s plate belongs to them and the two shall not be mixed. Other than that, I thought the meeting went well and hopefully Jane is ready to move forward with the contract.”

When I give a dining etiquette training I usually have people discuss with their neighbor dining etiquette dos and don’ts or at least the manners they were taught as kids. One participant said it bothers her when people use etiquette as a weapon – as a way to shame or judge others and make them feel wrong. And, that is definitely a no no. I mention in my presentations that etiquette is not about being perfect or stuffy. Etiquette is based on making others feel comfortable and it helps you to present yourself with polish and poise. It should not be used to hurt others. That said; I’m not perfect. I have been known to remind my husband to put his napkin on his lap and I can get really heated up when I do something nice for someone – like a client referral – and they don’t thank me. I don’t say anything, but internally I’m MAD! I’m sure i’ve made other mistakes, but, I try to keep my etiquette to myself unless I’m hired to work with company employees or a coaching client.

What do you think about telling people about their bad manners? Have you ever done it? Has it been done to you?

4 thoughts on “Well meaning or just mean?

  1. Wisetta Dolsey

    You surely need to have a relationship with that person. No matter the relationship correcting someone in front of others is always inconsiderate. Often with friends and family when they know our area of expertise they may ask about their dining skills. This is the time to offer advice.
    I believe everyone wants to know and do better, they are simply embarrassed to ask.

  2. Arden Clise

    Hi Wisetta, yes you do need to have a relationship with someone before giving etiquette advice and only if they ask for it. But, I typically don’t give free etiquette advice unless it’s a close friend or family member.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Leigha

    I think when breaking an etiquette rule might be offensive to others, it’s ok to let the person know, but, there needs to be kindness and discretion. And not all etiquette rules are as equally likely to give offense.

    Case in point, out to dinner with a friend newly moved to San Francisco from the Midwest. she picks up her chopsticks and starts rubbing them together to “remove” the splinters- this is considered incredibly insulting to the restaurant or your hosts because it implies that they’ve given you cheap, poorly made utensils. When our server left to place our order, I gave her a quiet FYI in low tones not wanting to be overheard and not wanting to draw attention to her. Having such a large Asian and Asian descent population, the rules around chopstick etiquette are extremely important, an entire skill set she’d never needed in a small town in Nebraska.

    The full butter bread bit, that’s hard, I currently live in Italy, and tearing -not cutting- the roll in half and buttering that half in one go is in fact the correct etiquette here. Along with cleaning any sauce from your plate with the bread, another American no-go.

  4. Arden Post author


    You’re right, who and what you’re pointing out can dictate if it’s okay to point out another’s etiquette breach. It sounds like you handled the chopstick conversation well and the person you shared the information with seemed receptive to hearing the information. When you present an etiquette tip as a “I recently learned that…isn’t that interesting” approach and less a “Did you know you are showing bad manners by…” tactic it will be received much better. However, I still maintain it’s best not to tell someone they have bad manners unless they are a child or direct report or the person asks for advice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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