Well meaning or just mean?

When I teach dining etiquette I often tell a story that my neighbor shared with me. When she was a teenager she went to her boyfriend’s house for dinner. She picked up her bread roll, cut it in half with her knife and buttered the whole piece. Her boyfriend loudly announced that she was eating her bread wrong. My poor neighbor was mortified. She had no idea there was a right or wrong way to eat bread. Perhaps her boyfriend thought he was being helpful. But actually, he made his girlfriend feel very embarrassed. Yes, she will never eat bread that way again, but the fact she shared that story with me tells me she still feels the shame of being told she was doing something “the wrong way.”

Well-meaning advice is often neither. When we give people unsolicited advice, especially when we tell them they are wrong, rather than helping, we alienate. There is a reason my neighbor broke up with her boyfriend and ended up marrying a man who doesn’t correct her manners.

People can have strong opinions about manners. When I am presenting or giving a company training, almost without fail I’m asked by a participant if they can tell their boss, friend, husband, coworker, etc. that they ________ (insert bad manner here).  And, my response is always the same – no, unless it’s your child or a direct employee and you are sharing the information carefully. Rather than shaming you want to deliver the news in a way that preserves the other person’s self-esteem. Such as, “Bob, you did a great job of leading the lunch meeting with Jane Client today. You kept us on track and presented the company information very clearly. I noticed you asked if you could eat something on Jane’s plate. You may not be aware that asking to eat someone else’s food can make them feel uncomfortable. I remember reading in an etiquette book that what’s on your plate belongs to you and what’s on another person’s plate belongs to them and the two shall not be mixed. Other than that, I thought the meeting went well and hopefully Jane is ready to move forward with the contract.”

When I give a dining etiquette training I usually have people discuss with their neighbor dining etiquette dos and don’ts or at least the manners they were taught as kids. One participant said it bothers her when people use etiquette as a weapon – as a way to shame or judge others and make them feel wrong. And, that is definitely a no no. I mention in my presentations that etiquette is not about being perfect or stuffy. Etiquette is based on making others feel comfortable and it helps you to present yourself with polish and poise. It should not be used to hurt others. That said; I’m not perfect. I have been known to remind my husband to put his napkin on his lap and I can get really heated up when I do something nice for someone – like a client referral – and they don’t thank me. I don’t say anything, but internally I’m MAD! I’m sure i’ve made other mistakes, but, I try to keep my etiquette to myself unless I’m hired to work with company employees or a coaching client.

What do you think about telling people about their bad manners? Have you ever done it? Has it been done to you?

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Tracy Huddleson on December 21, 2020 at 9:44 pm

    When strangers verbally abuse wait staff or cashiers in public, or strike an animal, or keep a long line of cars idling in a parking lot so they can hog the best parking space, I am a rocket ship to the moon. They are being unkind, or bad citizens, and there is no way I can not tell them so. I will say, however, that when arguing with strangers, if I admit I am in the wrong and apologize for my own transgression, it’s like a magic elixir transforms them in front of my eyes. All anger disappears. It can be hard to have perfect balance in these moments!

  2. Arden on December 22, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Hi Tracy,

    Yes, we have to stand up to bullies. And, admitting when we are wrong always diffuses a situation. You are full of grace and kindness so I’m sure you are easily able to calm an angry situation. Thanks for writing in.

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