How To Deal With A Loud Chewer

Miss Conduct offers advice on this open-office nightmare

Hello, faithful readers! We're back in action with a crowdsourced manners question to beat all manners questions, one that's haunted open-office workers—including yours truly—ever since some vengeful human monster decided walls were a bad call. (My guess? It's the guy who invented noise-canceling headphones.)

Quora poster Yishan Wong writes:

What is the most polite way to tell a coworker to stop chewing loudly when they eat? It gets on my nerves as well as the nerves of other coworkers but I'm not sure the best way to approach them.

This is of particular interest to me, dear readers, because not only do I have the pleasure of toiling away in a wide-open office (we're talking shared desks here), I'm also extremely sensitive to audible body sounds. Throat clearing, finger tapping, coughing, sniffling—you name it, it makes me want to gouge my eardrums out. No joke.

But the absolute worst annoyance, at least in this misophoniac's opinion, are chewing sounds. Why? Because chewing is not an uncontrollable nervous tick, some unintentional bodily reaction or indication of an unwanted illness, but rather a choice—an honest-to-goodness, unarguable choice. These people are just lazily munching away without any regard to those around them, as if they were pajama-ed up in their living rooms enjoying a midnight snack, not working away in a quiet space filled with people trying with all their might to focus. It's flat out inexcusable.

Unfortunately, loud chewing is one of the trickiest situations to navigate, especially when you're trying to keep your manners in check—and that's all the more reason to hash it out here.

OK, first things first: You have to assess the offender's general disposition. Do they respond to criticism well? Are they outgoing? Do you consider them a friend? The answers to these questions matter when it comes to commenting on someone else, even when it's as simple as their mastication habits.

So, let's consider the ideal scenario: This person appears to take criticism well, they're outgoing and you consider them a friend. Bingo. One approach is to offer to take said coworker out to lunch—don't make a big deal out of this, no "we need to talk" business.

Once your iced teas have arrived, launch into a story about a child you know (could be your friend's kid, could be your nephew, just go with it), who chews with his mouth open, making loud, lip-smacking sounds as he tears through even the softest of PB&Js. Thank your friend for letting you rant and then ask them, appreciatively and with all the genuine curiosity you can muster, "I really feel like I need to say something, but I don't know how. How would you deal with this?"

Then sit back and let your friend give you advice—it'll force them to really consider how irritating this faux pas can be and how it truly causes you to suffer, and because it concerns someone else, they're judging it from a distance. Then, as soon as your sensible salads hit the table, pay attention to their inevitable chewing. If it's quieted down, even just a little, you're on the (passive-aggressive) path to success. Congrats, champ.

On the flip side, if your answer is no to any of the initial questions, really the only thing left to do is to go to HR. It might be uncomfortable, but if it spurs a change without creating a mess of your nine-to-five life, it's well worth it. That's literally what they're there for, after all. And, hey, worst comes to worst, maybe HR will let you expense a pair of those noise-canceling headphones. Those babies can be pricy.

Well, that's that, ladies and gents. As always, keep it classy and keep the noise down. Good night, and good lunch.

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