BRENT STOLLER

Writer. Advice giver. Peanut butter and chocolate enthusiast.

The Polite Way to Tell Someone They’re (Doing Something) Disgusting

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

One of my co-workers, who is otherwise very professional, chews with her mouth open and often talks to other people in the office with a mouth full of food.

She’s also a very loud eater — I have to put headphones in if she’s eating something crunchy, like chips. It’s so bad that we’ve avoided inviting her to team outings that involve food.

Is there any way to approach this issue with her in a classy way?
–AnnoyedAdExec; Philadelphia, PA

When it comes to food consumption, only three of the five senses need apply: smell, taste and touch.

If the process is infiltrated by the other two, hearing and sight, it devolves from one of the most delectable affairs to one of the most disgusting.

(You can argue sight is what sets the other senses in motion. But in general, it causes more harm than good. Besides, what tactic is often used to determine which food is best? A blind taste test.)

Unfortunately, I say this based on personal experience. There’s someone I know (who shall remain nameless, except that it’s not my wife), someone I’ve enjoyed countless meals with, who is a loud eater.

And I’ve enjoyed those meals a little less because of it.

The chewing, the smacking, the slurping, even the swallowing — it’s like I’m inside their mouth, amid the destruction of their Chipotle burrito. It’s nauseating.

But I’m not sure there’s anything they can do about it.

As I’m writing this, I’m eating cashews, and I’m having trouble varying my biting volume. The only thing that comes close to lowering it is chewing extra slowly, as if I’m tiptoeing through each nut. And the reduction in decibels, at least inside my head, is minimal.

If anyone has additional suggestions, please share them in the comments below.

But I’m beginning to believe your bite volume, like your DNA or your preference for chocolate or vanilla, is something you’re born with.

Outside of passive-aggressively leaving a bag of gummy bears or a bottle of baby food on her desk, I don’t think you can say anything to your co-worker about her loud eating, because it’s part of who she is.

Of course, if she’s a loud eater because she does it with her mouth open, that changes things.

That is something you can address.

“Chew with your mouth closed,” and, “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” are two of the earliest lessons you learn. So there’s no excuse for this woman to be doing either as an adult.

These are legitimate faux pas, right up there with taking someone’s sandwich from the communal refrigerator or funkifying the office by reheating last night’s salmon in the microwave.

If you’re looking for the easy way out, log onto a site like NoOffenseOrAnything.com to send an anonymous email notifying her that she uses bad table manners (or has bad breath, body odor or dandruff).

This could be a good starting point, because it allows you to directly confront the problem without the discomfort of direct confrontation.

The only problem is, assuming she doesn’t bring it up, there’s no way of knowing if your co-worker has received or read the email. But it’s not a bad test balloon to float.

If her behavior doesn’t change in the email’s aftermath, though, there’s no more hiding. One of you has to talk with her.

Aside from looking her in the eyes — and not at her lunch-covered incisors — here are a few tips for doing so…

1. Nominate the right person

If there’s collusion to keep your co-worker out of team activities, her full, open mouth is an office-wide concern.

So when it comes to picking who talks to her, there are two options.

One would be her superior.

This is an offense in the workplace, affecting the workplace, meaning it’s an offense that can be handled by her boss (or human resources rep).

And hearing about it from an authority figure could ensure the message carries more weight.

That said, this is a cold, clinical way of going about it.

Plus, if she’s called to the carpet by her boss, not only will she be humiliated, she also might wonder if her standing with the company will be impacted.

Is that worth the risk?

A warmer, gentler approach would be to pick someone who’s close(st) to her.

She’s more likely to trust this person, because she’ll know they have her best interest at heart.

Bad news is easier to consume when it comes from a (good) friend.

The only challenge is finding someone to take one for the team.

2. Put yourself in her chews

According to author and podcaster Tim Ferriss:

“A person’s success in life can be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”

That’s a great argument to get someone to take one for the team.

Want to live your dream? Tell Bonnie in marketing she’s a disgusting human who nobody can be around without a fear of vomiting!

And that’s the thing — there’s no easy way for this person to have this conversation with your co-worker.

Which is why before stepping into the arena, they should ask themselves:

If the roles were reversed, what would I want someone to say to me?

For me, I’d want them to be kind and respectful. And it’d help if they softened the blow with pillowy qualifiers like, “it seems,” “sometimes,” “kind of” and “a little.”

But mostly, I’d want them to be honest and to the point:

“I hate bringing this up, and I’m not even sure you’re aware. But it seems like sometimes you have a tendency to chew and speak with your mouth open, and it’s kind of making some of us a little uncomfortable.”

3. Separate the action from the person

This could be the most important point.

While actions speak louder than words, when an action is as innocuous as this, it doesn’t have to define a person’s character.

Your co-worker has a gross habit; she’s not (necessarily) a gross human.

Yet this conversation could make her feel like one.

Which is why whoever talks to her must also stress this woman’s good qualities — how professional she is, and how important she is to the team.

The more the office can open its arms to her, the more likely she’ll be to close her mouth.

TAKE ACTION

If you’re ready to become a better communicator, decision-maker and risk-taker while also boosting your overall happiness, check out my video, “5 Strategies That Will Make You Unstoppable.”

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This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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