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Husband Improvement Projects

This question was left as a comment today, and I think it warrants its own blog post. I hope you will, too.

Sue wrote:

My husband and I have a pretty good thing going. There is a cultural difference (he is Scandinavian) we have bridged with humor and has even helped us both to stretch and grow. He was raised on a very poor farm and did not learn any table manners. He is now highly educated and in corporate America. I was stunned when we went out to eat with his colleagues that he speared an entire long asparagus and shoved it vertically in his mouth, chomping on it like a horse on a carrot, slurped his coffee noisily, etc i.e. the same bad table manners he exhibits at home. I could see his boss was put off. This might be a contributing factor to his lack of advancement. He is sensitive about coming from a humble background. I was thinking of hiring an etiquette person to teach us both better table manners. Should I surprise him with this as a gift or discuss it beforehand? Or just leave this alone?

How perfectly awful, Sue! Did everyone else eat the asparagus the proper way? Miss Manners and many other etiquette experts say asparagus spears, unless covered in sauce or limp, are finger food. A fork and knife should be used only to spare other less well-bred diners at the table from embarrassment.

(Confession: despite knowing this, I have never once picked up an asparagus spear with my fingers unless served as an hors d'oeuvre, wrapped in prosciutto and tied with a pretty green bow.)

Coffee slurping is actually a proper sign of appreciation in some cultures. So is burping. Some keep the left hand in the lap except when needed to spear the item being cut. At least one insists both hands stay on the table at all times. Still others don't want that left hand anywhere near the food, thank you very much.

It is true that having different table manners from the boss can hurt a person's advancement opportunities. But this is true even if the boss's table manners don't come from an etiquette guide, or from the US version.

Ah, but I am not here to advise about table manners, but about marriage. Expectations breed resentments in a marriage. Whether your expectation is that your spouse have good table manners or seek advancement on the job, this is still your expectation, your judgment of what your husband should do.

So I would ask, why does this matter to you? What is it that you need? Because it is okay to ask for what you need. It's not okay to expect your spouse to adopt your priorities (job advancement) or your methods (table manners).

And when I say not okay, I mean not likely to help you enjoy being married. When your kind offer (or surprise) of etiquette training is taken as criticism or nitpicking or even ignorance of his career field, expecting him to better himself is going to leave you resentful and feeling like the one with superior habits. And both of those will make it harder to love and feel loved, to respect and feel respected.

It is perfectly appropriate to ask for what you want. That is very different from expecting your husband (or wife) to do as you say or implying there is something about your mate that is not good enough for you.

You could say, "I was raised with some pretty strict U.S. table manners, and even though I respect and adore you, when we're at formal dinners or trying to impress clients or employers, I feel uncomfortable with some of the things you do, even when others say nothing about it. I know it's because I was corrected over and over as a child. Would you be willing to invest some time in learning some of the more formal rules for dining from a book or video or expert? If not, I will work on dealing with those particular tapes in my head."

It is also appropriate to say, "I think you are so talented, but I noticed something the other night that could unfairly thwart your career, and you might be unaware of it. Do you want to hear more?"

If he says he would like to learn more about table manners, then hiring an expert or buying a book or video will be a welcome gift. But the decision to learn about this is all his. If you want to learn more, go ahead. If he joins you, great. If not, also great, because you are learning for you. But if you are planning to learn more as a way to manipulate his behavior, that's quite likely to diminish your enjoyment of your marriage.

If you want to be happily married, Expect Love, not sliced asparagus.

(If I were better at graphics, I think I would make that line into a badge for Pinterest and Facebook.)


Thanks for this excellent advice! I had a sense of disquietude as I contemplated talking to him about this. I could feel it was my issue, not his. I've been a supervisor a long time and it is hard to find good employees with stable personalities like my husband. I wouldn't give a fig about their table manners, attire, etc as long as they got the work done.
He's under a lot of pressure at work now. He doesn't need the added pressure of trying to learn American formal table manners. I am keeping my mouth zipped.

Sue, I just wonder why you left it so long? Surely if you think his table manners are so appalling, wouldn't you have wanted to "help" him "improve" in the privacy of your home? Can it be that you have never before eaten out in public?

Great post.

Here's my favorite line:
"Would you be willing to invest some time in learning some of the more formal rules for dining from a book or video or expert? If not, I will work on dealing with those particular tapes
in my head."

Sometimes it can be hard to accept that our spouse is not us-- nor is he or she an extension of us or a reflection of us.

Same with our children --
they are not an extension of us, either.

I think some of the hardest work in marriage is letting the other be without working our improvement magic on them so that we're more comfortable.

Thanks, Winifred!

Sometimes it can be hard to accept that our spouse is not us-- nor is he or she an extension of us or a reflection of us. /

So true. Marriage gets a lot easier once we stop trying to make it so.

I would be curious to know how many times this wife has spoken to her husband about this issue (or similar manner type issues). Has this been an ongoing thing or is new eating habits that have just occurred.

This is some delicate territory. Very easy to hurt someone's feelings, and also to think your own pet peeve is shared by everyone. Meanwhile, you probably don't notice your partner's pet peeve in your own behavior. I have ADHD, and my partner has her own little gaucheries*, so we are in this territory pretty often. With time, either things become less noticeable, or we slowly adapt our behavior. But we still have problem areas. These things have to be approached with great patience, restraint, and affection. If each of you is sincerely claiming "No, it's my fault.", you may be getting someplace. The fault almost never belongs to just one partner. And being angry or irritated is not the same thing as being right!

Those scripts you supply can be used to hide behind. Although being careful with the words is good in itself, it will hurt more than help if one doesn't mean them.

In the case under discussion, the cultural differences are obvious. But every family is a different culture, even if both are from the same area, class, and ethnicity.

*One of our biggies is how long I can pause to think of the right word before she jumps in. If I'm not mistaken, she waits a lot longer with me than is customary in her family. But sometimes it doesn't feel long enough. Even though it might seem like a long interval to anyone else.

I, on the other hand, have inherited my father's incorrigible punning. I have to decide if the stony silence I elicit is incomprehension or offense!

Thanks, lanonymous!

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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