Dealing with Disgusting Mouth
Sounds During a Meal

Couple Eating Together

When I ask my university students during etiquette seminars what their greatest pet peeve is when dining, the most popular response, by far, is “disgusting mouth sounds.”

A sampling of their more specific answers:

  • Lip-smacking
  • Biting the spoon or fork
  • Slurping
  • Chewing loudly and with mouth open
  • Teeth clicking
  • Swishing
  • Licking
  • Loud swallowing of a beverage

Considering that meals are enjoyed together to bring people together, is it appropriate to call someone’s attention to their annoying mouth sounds?  As with most etiquette guidelines, the answer is related to the situation.

The Importance of Dining Etiquette

Dining etiquette isn’t so much a specific set of rules as it is a bundle of civility skills pertaining to sharing a meal with others.  It is appreciated at home, socially, and in business. 

During our current pandemic, meals are primarily taken at home, though indoor and outdoor restaurant eating is returning.  Being at home and eating together can bring feelings of family solidarity and intimacy.  But studies have shown that if couples or family members have poor dining habits, they can get on others’ nerves, making the meal less enjoyable or, in extreme cases, even stressful.

The foundation of table manners, when observed, keeps you under the sound and visual radar of others at the table.  In other words, you avoid invading their physical or virtual space.  You’re careful not to screech your fork and knife across the plate while cutting, struggle with chewing a too-big bite of food, don’t take food from someone’s plate, don’t pick your teeth, and – as is the point here – you also avoid making disgusting mouth sounds.

Handling the Annoyance of Mouth Sounds

Though all my students agree on the disturbance of mouth sounds, one student shared a more serious response: “I’m allergic to eating sounds because I have misophonia.”  In researching this, I discovered misophonia literally means “hatred of sound,” and is described as a condition in which negative emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions are triggered by certain sounds. 

Whether the sounds of smacking, chewing, swallowing, or swishing are merely annoying, or you are indeed “allergic” to them, the fact remains they must either be tolerated or be dealt with in some way.

If you are sharing a meal with a business associate, someone you’ve just met, or someone you don’t know very well, it may be best to tolerate the situation.  At least for one or two meals.

If or when you decide to approach someone about their mouth sounds, keep these points in mind:

  • Kindness is always in order.
  • Etiquette is about subtlety.
    - A quiet talk later with the person whose sounds are bothering you, letting them know that what you are saying has nothing to do with them as a person, can be all that’s needed. 
    - Or, if you think a person at the table is over-reacting, a quiet personal chat alone, can help ease the tension. 
  • Embarrassing or shaming someone is never in order.

If you adapt the motto of “Courtesy first” as your initial response to dining faux pas, you will buttress your self-command and personal power and will find that, even if someone is appearing to be rude, it’s never okay to be rude back with a sharp comment or criticism.

For all of us, food is a center of concern.  Our health depends on what we eat.  Many of us struggle with issues related to food and how it’s ingested.  In these days of staying at home, couples and families are also challenged with feeling cooped-up.  All of these issues can add to any level of annoyance you may have, but what better time to work on respectful actions at the table?

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