Our eyes are constant space invaders, but it’s important to remember that honoring other people’s personal space is an active value. When we dine, we do not reach across someone else’s dining space, nor do we reach to add to or take food from their plate.
Space invaders also appear in conversations. Minding our own business requires good judgment and consideration of the people present. The right to privacy means that we don’t snoop around. We excuse ourselves if we interrupt a private moment.
Common sense and self-control can’t always be counted on. If we unthinkingly embark into uncomfortable, sensitive conversation territory, the proverbial “eyeballs” of others are right there noticing. These sentinels just can’t control themselves and they can’t be expected to unsee what they witnessed.
As I half-jokingly say when teaching dining etiquette classes, “Our eyes are space invaders of the worst kind.” They seem to have a will of their own. And once seen, you can’t unsee even though you wish you had not witnessed it. Slurped soup; fingers pushing food onto a fork; the licking of a knife, a grimace or sound that characterizes a guest’s feeling about what they’ve been served.
When you notice that the other person notices that you’ve noticed, what could you say that etiquette-fully helps everyone out?
Have you ever said something and realized too late that it was gossip or confidential, or had a private conversation with one person, thus excluding others in the group? Over-dramatized a mistake, drawing even more attention to yourself? As you look around the room, you know that others can’t unsee what they saw—or heard. First stop and take a breath. You may have to fake composure.
Things you might say:
As embarrassing as those moments can be, doing the right thing and owning your actions and words will show your integrity. While others may have been caught off-guard in the moment, your admission and apology will alleviate the negativity of the situation. And afterwards, remind yourself that:
Etiquette helps us see, at the margin, what should be done to keep interactions and relationships harmonious. And the goal is not perfectionism! We’re doing our best, moment by moment.