Manner Matters: Hands off My Cake

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[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly, A couple of weeks ago some friends and I met for dinner at a steakhouse. During dessert, the person sitting next to me reached over and stuck her fork in my cake and had a bite.  No "May I?" and no warning. I might add that at the beginning of our gathering she announced she'd had a sinus infection and was taking antibiotics. Her action disgusted me. I said nothing but I pushed my plate away and couldn't eat anymore. Should I have commented on her behavior? This isn't the first time she's displayed incredibly bad manners. Should I just avoid her company? That is difficult because we share close friends and often get together as a group.  

Sign me,
Sick and Appalled

Dear Sick and Appalled,

Family lore has it that my grandfather used to reach over and nab the icing my mother had carefully saved from the top of her piece of cake to eat last because she liked it best. It is as difficult for me to imagine my sweet and considerate grandfather doing this as it is for me to believe my eyes when someone grabs something off my plate today.

The trend among many people these days is assumed sharing of restaurant food. Offering everyone at the table a bite of one's dish has become de rigueur in many circles, especially, I'm afraid, when it comes to dessert. Some people are so dedicated to this mode of eating that they will create tastes for everyone and place them on bread plates or even rims of everyone's plates. No matter the relationship or past agreed-upon practice, however, polite people still ask before they taste someone else's food. You, however, clearly know this. Your question is if you should comment on her behavior.

The answer is simple: it depends.

Were this a dear friend, I would say to mention it. A simple, "I know you like to taste everything, but I'd rather you ask me first" before the next time you go out to eat would, theoretically, suffice. She could think you uptight, but a real friend would comply with such a request and perhaps even find your fussiness somewhat charming.

With a less-close friend, one with whom a one-on-one confessional would be weird, you have three reasonable options. First, announce to the table that you'd prefer not to share and will be ordering your own dishes. Second, pre-empt the fork stab by offering to cut off or scoop out a taste for everyone before you dig in. Finally, if neither of those work, next time she goes for your plate feign confusion: "I'm sorry, is this yours? I didn't realize you'd ordered one too." Then move the plate or bowl over to her and inform the server that you need another one. When she protests, simply say that you prefer to have one to yourself. Do this in the nicest, most even tone of voice you can possibly muster.

It is clear in your letter, however, that you do not care for this person. Life is too short, in my humble opinion, to spend too much time in the company of people of whom we are not fond. It isn't possible to avoid such people all together, as you mention, but it is often possible to limit our time with them. Sadly, the less you like someone, the more difficult it is to handle such issues honestly and gracefully. Your disgust (your word, not mine) is obvious and will come across.

No matter how you feel about people, however, it is never correct to correct their manners overtly. You must act as if they are acting properly. Drawing attention to ill manners is bad manners. So what you cannot do, tempting though it is, is point out to this person, whoever she may be, that grabbing food off someone's plate without asking is rude. Even though it is. It really is.

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About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Check out her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.

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