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I’ve noticed over the course of my life that people tend to be very curious about what other people are eating. I remember the first time this facet of human behavior abruptly came into my awareness. Decades ago I was eating my home-brought lunch in the employee cafeteria when a coworker happened by, bent over, and practically stuck her face into my plate in order to decipher what I was eating. I responded with “Do you mind?” to which she sarcastically retorted “No, I don’t.” This woman was almost as bad as the one who had issues with the olive oil on pizza and would dab it with napkins before eating it. But in typical neurotic fashion, she would uninvitingly do so to everyone else’s slice as well.
Maybe you can relate to this situation. Have you ever passed people in the hallway, maybe between the microwave and your office, and they peer at your plate and seem compelled to comment on it? “Looks good!” “Smells good!” “Going off the diet today huh?” Or maybe they approach you wherever you may be eating with stares and questions. “Whatcha got today?” “Oh you eat really healthy huh?” “Counting carbs?” Or worse yet…….“Ooooh, can I try some?”
A similar scenario plays out in restaurants every day, namely, the diner who must scan the plates of people at other tables. Granted, individuals are curious about the menu items and having a visual aid may facilitate their choice. Nevertheless, few people appreciate being glared at while immersed in their meal. Besides, I don’t think menu curiosity explains this behavior in every instance.
I remember in high school there were a number of my fellow students who were quite observant of what other kids were having for lunch. Usually this was performed in the service of uncovering something to tease them about. I recall one kid who relished hiding dead flies in other kid’s sandwiches. In any event, whatever the aberration, they were nonetheless vigilant of other’s nourishment.
I’m somewhat befuddled as to why people are so nosey about what other people are eating. I suspect there are a variety of motivations, the specifics of which, and the combinations of which, vary from individual to individual. As stated, for the high-schoolers it was simple malevolence. For others it might be self-doubt. Insecure folks look to the external world for guidance as to how to act. Maybe they’re apprehensive of what type of food or serving size is appropriate for a given situation and seek direction. Paranoids search for information about others to assess ulterior motives. Anxious individuals may use your lunch as a social lubricant. Passing someone in the hallway triggers their self-consciousness and social anxiety. Commenting on your plate of Buffalo wings gives them a momentary ice-breaker. Some folks may be operating on simple human curiosity combined with a dose of egocentrism. Consumed by their own inclinations and indifferent to the feelings of others, they stick their face in your plate with impunity. And of course there’s always the food neurotics, like the woman with the pizza, who will breech boundaries because of their insufferable food issues.
Yes, the reasons for humans’ curiosity in others’ food inevitably are arcane, complex, and possibly unknowable. But I think I can offer a hypothesis about why some of us find their nosiness so objectionable.
Eating is a very personal experience. Despite the fact that eating is an integral part of countless interpersonal events, there is still something private about eating. When we eat we are engaged in an engrossing, intimate relationship; sensually pleasing and life preserving. Eating feeds our bodies and our souls, and offers a pleasurable respite from the demands of life.
Even though we may be sharing the experience with others, there remains a significant part of the process unique to our inner world. Instinctively we have a natural reaction to any imposition upon that inner sanctum. Think about how it feels when the phone rings during dinner, someone interrupts your lunch break, or any distraction occurs mid-meal. There’s a visceral reaction of annoyance or displeasure.
We all know this and although mealtime consideration is a waning courtesy in our culture, it still manifests itself in our social graces. We endeavor not to bother people when they are eating and we apologize if we do. We put off calling friends until after the dinner hour. We implicitly understand that there is something sacred about meal time. Thus, having someone even momentarily poke their nose in our dish is enough to register on our internal irritation meter.
Europeans have an even greater respect for meal periods. It is not uncommon for businesses to close for a couple of hours midday so that lunch can be savored unfettered by the trappings of modern life. What a contrast to the countless Americans whose bottom-line focused employers expect them to take a “working” lunch or no lunch break at all. The point is that European culture offers a prime example of how our relationship with food is appreciated and revered. I suspect the average European would be less inclined to put his nose in your plate than the average New Yorker, precisely because of the heightened respect he has for food and mankind’s relationship with it.
Therein lies the crucial differentiator. What separates the bulls in the china shop from the cows glancing from afar is that the cows have an additional set of values cohabitating with their food curiosity. Be it respect for the food, respect for mealtime, or propriety regarding interpersonal space and boundaries, they restrain their curiosity, or whatever other internal impulses, from overriding their manners. Food can be a vehicle for either bonding with others or intruding upon them. Refraining from the latter is the ultimate expression of table manners.
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