I grew up eating family-style meals with my hands while sitting on the floor, because that's how it's done in my culture. So I am not squeamish about sharing food or getting down and dirty with it. I am, however, a rigorous hand washer; a good thing for my guests because I toss salad and test steaks for doneness with my bare hands. I also own ten times more spoons than any other utensil because I wouldn't dream of using my finger to taste a sauce.
My issue is this: I am grossed out by people's casual attitude toward spit swapping and casually touching food. By this, I mean double-dipping into shared food, picking at food in my kitchen while I'm prepping it, digging olives out of the jar with bare fingers despite the nearby presence of a tiny fork, or saying "Hey, you got a margarita! Is it good? Can I have a sip?"
Maybe it's just me (a background in public health probably doesn't help), but this feels greedy, oafish, and just generally nasty, not to mention inconsiderate to anyone who isn't excited about catching the flu from Commando Rando because he lacks the self-confidence to focus on his ice cream cone until he's licked everyone else's too. The good life has germs, but I also believe in calculated risks. I am always happy to slice off a hunk of my sandwich for someone, or have them taste my drink with a straw. But I know this behavior is often perceived as compulsive, paranoid, and even offensive.
My friends have gotten fairly used to me, but I struggle with what to do around people I don't know very well. Using the excuse that I have a constant cold and don't want to make anyone else sick makes me look like a fragile weirdo. Although, to their credit, people who double-dip habitually probably have better immune systems than I do.
Is there a way to tell people they're being gross without being rude about it?
Finicky About Fingers
Dear Finicky About Fingers,
I'm intrigued by the "Commando Rando" character you know whose sense of self is tied to his ice cream choice. Life must be a great challenge to him, because both coffee and mint chocolate chip are excellent choices. There is that moment of panic, of course, once the scooping starts and you wonder if perhaps a malted wouldn't be a better idea, but I don't know I've ever encountered someone who thinks sullying everyone else's choice would help matters much.
There are, to be sure, families and groups of friends who habitually taste each others' food. Maybe they suffer greater instances of colds, maybe they don't—that is not the issue here. And I'm going to suggest you stop saying it is.
The idea that people you don't know very well are asking you for tastes of your food upsets me. It is up to the diner whether or not to offer a taste. Except among good friends who have a standing understanding, it's just not cool to ask people for sips or bites or licks.
You can't stop them from asking, but you can stop them from licking (full disclosure: I'm pretty tolerant about food sharing, but the idea of sharing an ice cream cone is definitely where I'm finding my gross-out line while contemplating this question). No need to feign a constant cold. Act a bit surprised and offer to cut them off a bite or offer to fetch a straw or a spoon. If they claim that isn't necessary, just keep insisting. Confusion at their request may prove useful. Turn it into a joke about yourself, if you like, and use your background to your advantage. "I'm afraid my background in public health has ruined me for sharing food that way" doesn't directly tell them how out of line they are, but gets the job done.
Can you tell people they're being gross without being rude about it? Nope. At least you can't do it politely. Yet you can say, "Oh, you must be looking for this" as you present the tiny fork to Mr. Hand-in-the-Jar. Or "I'm sorry, let me set aside a portion for you" to Ms. I'm-Going-to-Snack-on-the-Veggies-Cut-for-Dinner.
Might they think you're uptight? Obsessive? Paranoid? They may. There is nothing you can do about that. Is that potential assessment a price worth paying for not being grossed out as you eat? Only you can be the judge of that.
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Manner Matters runs every week and we love receiving your questions. Do you have a dining-related pickle (and not the delicious kind that indicates you are in a good deli)? Email [email protected] to submit your question. All questions will be read. Unfortunately, not all can be answered.
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. Catch her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.