David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am having problems at family mealtimes. My husband’s table manners are not good—he eats like a hungry animal and spoils the dining experience. I have done my best to ignore his behavior over the years, but my teenage daughter is upset by it and I think his manners are getting worse.
I read your question at the end of my workday, so it was on my mind when I sat down to dinner with my wife. I can be guilty of poor table manners—eating too quickly, taking large mouthfuls, and talking while I chew. And I don’t always react well to being reminded about my table manners. After all, it’s not like I’m spilling food on the floor or eating with my hands.
I see three challenges in this conversation. First, you don’t want your husband to feel attacked or disrespected. That’s not your goal, and it would provoke defensiveness. Second, you’re dealing with an entrenched habit that will take some time and attention to change. It won’t be a single conversation. And third, because your husband will need reminders, you run the risk of coming across as a nag. Somehow you need your husband to take responsibility for making the change.
Find mutual purpose. Before the discussion, consider your mutual purpose. What purpose does your husband share for making the change? What goal does your husband have that his eating habits are impeding or thwarting? For example, many couples see family meals as opportunities to communicate and connect. Do you and your husband share this goal?
In addition, your husband may have other goals that are thwarted by a slow dinner. Maybe he is rushing to get to an activity. Or maybe the current dinner conversations are less about communication and connection than about tasks and assignments. Are there ways to make family dinners more convenient and pleasurable?
Describe the gap. Start by explaining your positive intentions, and then describe what you expect and the behaviors you are observing. Avoid inflammatory language, e.g., “You eat like a hungry animal.”
Here is an example: “I’d like to see if we can use our family dinners to connect more as a family, especially with our daughter. Is it okay if I share some specifics that I think would help?” Give your husband a chance to respond here. You want to create safety so he won’t feel attacked.
Be ready to present your issue. For example, “I have noticed that you eat very fast, making dinner time feel more like a race than a time to be together. I’d like us to spend more time together over meals, and to include more conversation. Are you aware of how fast you eat?” Again, give your husband time to respond. Listen to his perspective, but don’t lose track of the issue you want to address.
Be ready to respond and reinforce the behavior you want to change. For example, “I would like you to slow down when you eat and help all of us take advantage of the time we have together.”
Check with your daughter before you bring her into this discussion. Make sure you aren’t hiding behind your daughter—that you present this issue as your concern. But also, don’t keep your daughter’s concerns a secret from your husband. Every father has a right to know when he’s spoiling a relationship with one of his children.
Get his buy-in on the broad issue, and then ask for permission to remind him. Our eating habits are both personal and tough to change. We’ve practiced them so often that they’ve become a part of our automatic pilot. Even when we want to change, we fail to notice when we slip into our old ways. Ask your husband whether it’s okay to remind him when you see him slip, and together develop a cue that won’t be embarrassing. For example, you might use a question like, “What was the high point of your day?”
Actually remind him. It’s inevitable your husband will slip, and exhibit his bad table manners. Let’s suppose you see him take a giant bite out of a pork chop, argue a point while balancing a meatball on his tongue, or pick his back molars with his index finger. Use your cue, and, if necessary, talk to him later in private. Remind yourself that when your husband slips, it’s not because he doesn’t care. It takes time to change long-standing habits.
Focus on a positive vital behavior. If you determine that one of the purposes for having your husband eat slower is to improve family connections during meals, then you can take some positive steps that will help promote the kind of exchange you desire.
I’ll share one strategy you can use to promote dialogue among all parties at the table. I learned it from Al Switzler, my VitalSmarts colleague. It’s a game that’s designed to build and practice conversational skills.
Having a conversation is like playing tennis. One person serves up the topic, and then you both volley the conversation back and forth. The goal is to keep the conversation in play. If I serve up the topic, then your role is to respond to my volley in a way the keeps the conversation alive. After a while we switch servers, so the other person has to come up with topics to discuss.
Imagine that you, your husband, and your daughter practiced this conversation game for at least part of your dinner meal. It’s incompatible with speed eating, and it contributes to your long-term mutual purpose. Try to have your husband, not you, take the lead on explaining and initiating this kind of activity.
Finally, be patient, and put this problem into its proper perspective. Many habits are much worse than bad table manners, but few are harder to change.