Q. Lately, I have discovered that my husband's family believes that "manners are for company," and now that I am, alas, no longer an outsider, everyone feels comfortable to be his or her real self.
My father-in-law is particularly bad; a man who cannot eat toast without smearing butter all over his face has no right to eat, indeed to exist at all.
However, the problem is between my husband and me. He complains that in private he should be able to eat as he wishes, while my belief is that one owes oneself the same courtesy one would extend to strangers. He is angry at my refusal to eat meals with him at home, but when I walk into the dining room and am faced by him hunched over his plate, gobbling, smacking and belching to himself, I cannot really feel privileged that he is so "relaxed" in my presence.
Do you see a resolution here? I do not like being in the position of teaching table manners to a grown-up man or of making ultimatums, neither do I like the idea of eating alone or of feeling repulsed by unappetizing habits.
A. What a peculiar idea it is that one's "real self" is one's worst behavior. There is nothing false about being good, in Miss Manners' opinion, and the effort to live up to one's better self is the noblest career on which one can embark.
Her view is entirely the opposite of your husband's and even different from yours that "one owes oneself the same courtesy one would extend to strangers." One owes one's family much more. Manners toward strangers are a fine thing, but in family life, they are essential. If you offend strangers, you can move on, but if you disgust members of your family--well, you can still move on, and many people do, but it is emotionally and otherwise rather expensive.
Thus, while Miss Manners admires your belief (which is one of her rules, too) that one should not attempt to teach manners to grown-ups, she feels that something has to be done here. You will never find happiness, or even ordinary peace, with a man who repulses you three times a day.
Your remarks about your father-in-law are not quite so admirable, and make Miss Manners wary of trusting you with the task of talking the problem out tactfully with your husband so that you can find a living arrangement satisfactory to you both. The suggestion that his father ought to receive the death sentence for his table manners does not put the matter on the plane of decorum, rather than worth, where it ought to be debated.
The arguments for your husband's improving his table manners are:
1. You both want to share meals, but you want them to be agreeable.
2. Good manners always take precedence over bad, so there is no use arguing that it is a question simply of his comfort against yours.
3. Good manners do not preclude stylistic differences between informal, family eating and company behavior. Picking up chicken bones and going after that last slurp of sauce are permissible in the informal family environment, but not in formal situations.
4. The habit of eating pleasantly is quickly acquired, and one is less apprehensive about being on display in business or social situations when the correct thing has become second nature.
5. You may have children some day and will need a single standard of household behavior on which to rear them; it will be greatly to their advantage, for reason 4, to have this be a high standard.
6. Any activity likely to lead to your having children is apt to be adversely affected by the daily practice of your being repulsed by your husband's physical behavior.