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Dear Heidi: Is it petty to break up with someone for eating with their mouth open?

That depends. How important is etiquette in your life?

Many of us are fortunate to have been raised by loved ones who considered etiquette and good manners fundamental to our earliest life lessons. We teach children to say, "Yes, please," "No, thank you," and "Never chew with your mouth open." These simple curtsies are the core of civility and social graces.

However, not all of us are so fortunate and grow up doing the best we can without proper etiquette training. Some of us have to learn as we go, teaching ourselves by mimicking others who we believe navigate the social world well. Perhaps we had to research etiquette or even seek out a coach like me. Others never learn the importance of good manners and have a big void in their lives.  

Missing a link as large as etiquette knowledge can be limiting at best and downright detrimental. Imagine going to a fancy business dinner and not knowing how to sit, make conversation, use proper utensils, or even the most basic thing — chewing with your mouth closed. The lack of these skills will hold you back unless your circle operates under a rock.  

If you are in a romantic relationship with someone who does not share your level of adeptness with social codes, stop for a moment and examine why. Were they not taught manners as a child, or do they know better but do not care? If it's the former, we can fix that. If it's the latter, you're in for a big decision.  

Let's say that your partner didn't have the luxury of an etiquette education early in life but would like to learn. You are bothered by her chewing habits and would like to help her with table manners. Be careful. You need to be very sensitive when pointing out her "mistakes." 

Be mindful of how you broach the subject with your partner. You do not want to make an etiquette mistake either—do not offend others.

To bring it up, keep your tone warm, genuine, and empathetic, and say something like:

"I enjoy spending time with you, and I hope you feel the same. Do you mind if I make an observation? I have noticed that when we eat together, sometimes your mouth is open when you're chewing. I hope you don't have a medical condition that precludes you from closing your mouth. Please excuse me if I’ve overstepped, I mean well."

She might reply: "I enjoy being with you too, and I wasn't aware that my mouth is open. I'm fine, medically speaking. I didn't realize I did this, I was so engrossed in our conversations.”

You could add: "I'm not the etiquette police, but I am lucky to have been raised by someone who considered manners a cornerstone of my early education. Now, it’s part of who I am. I’m sure you know, it is polite to chew with your mouth closed, but sometimes we’re so distracted by company and conversation, we’re innocently unaware of our actions.  I'm sure there are things I do that you could point out and help me with."

She could reply in two ways:

1.  ”Thank you for bringing this to my attention; I will work on it. By the way, I've noticed that you don't put your hand over your mouth when you yawn. Maybe we can work on things together."

2.  ”How dare you embarrass me like this; what difference does it make to you if my mouth is open or closed when I chew? I think maybe you are the Etiquette Police!"

Once you have your answer, you have a decision to make: Work on some etiquette together, or call it quits.  

How necessary is your partner's aptitude with good manners to you? Is she perfect for you otherwise? If it's important and she is worth the effort, employ some respect and work on your social skills together. You may consider working with an etiquette coach as a couple. This way, the coach can point out awkward things, and you remain the tactful person you are. Learning together can be rewarding and fun.

On the other hand, if your partner has no interest in learning or changing, and good manners are essential to you, you might consider making a change in the relationship. Or, you can limit your time eating together.

The bottom line is, be kind and respectful, and stay true to your standards and values.


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