"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Misophonia–Stop Chewing With Your Mouth Open!

I had no idea that there was a name for the disgust that I have sitting across from someone chewing with their mouth open.  It doesn’t happen very often, but there are those few old friends who were not brought up right, who unknowingly show the rest of us how they chew, and who are forgiven.   “So, as I was saying….” The piece of meat is pounded by the molars; “…Obama never should have…” The tongue is now in play shifting the mashed meat around to give the incisors a go. “Passed the damn law”. Now the bottom of the tongue is visible, all purplish-blue, striated, and laced with roots and tendons.

The chewing itself is a symphony of juicy sucking, light popping, squishing, and sloshing. When the mouthful has been swallowed and the noise mercifully over, only the detritus remains – bits and pieces of meat on the lips, a smear of grease across the chin, and a dribble of gravy from the corners of the mouth.

Usually bad table manners are not confined to one thing alone.  Those who never learned how to eat properly do not only chew with their mouths open, but pick at food on the serving plates with their fingers, wave dirty forks around like batons, and wipe their noses with the napkin.  It is disgusting, and I only put up with it because they don’t know any better.

Of course I have to wonder how after 50 years of living in polite society some people have never gotten the picture. My wife and I are not exactly courtiers of Louis XIV, but we do sit up straight, keep our napkins on our lap, and keep our mouths shut when there is food in them. How can people keep eating like members of a primitive Amazonian tribe, hacking rather than cutting their food, ripping pieces of flesh off the chicken bone then sucking it for last morsels, stabbing their forks deep into a piece of meat and sawing off an end? We can’t be the last arbiters of table manners in Northwest Washington.

Or do people with bad manners tend to cluster together.  Urban legend has it that Jews have the worst table manners:

You would think that frummies (Jews) would have good table manners, after all we have a lot of time to practice. Unlike other folks, frummies have formal meals at least twice a week and many frummies have big meals at which to hone their skills, much more often than regular folks – yet they are severely lacking in the table manners department. Frum men shovel food into their gullets without caring if their sleeves are dipping into their food, the love the lift plate and shovel from the center technique to get as much food in at once, some of them may be more polite and use bread crust to assist with this feat – but thou shalt not use a knife chas v’shalom.(Heshy Fried,Frum Satire, a satirical blog on Jewish habits).

           Frum Satire

At a wake of an old family friend, his survivors celebrated his life with a feast – deli favorites, roast turkey, babka, brisket, chopped liver, kreplach, and lox. When the table was ready, people ran for the food. It was a free-for-all.  Elbows flailed. There were hockey hip-checks, subway shoving, and long-armed Orangutan reaches across the table. I politely waited for the crowd to thin.

“Have you only eaten at Church suppers?”, asked a Jewish friend of mine, seeing me patiently waiting by the window. “When there’re Jews and food, you have to push and shove otherwise there will be nothing left but the schmaltz”.

Heshy Fried says that Jews can eat with good manners if they want, but pick their spots and always revert to form:

Eventually I grew up a little and learned when to have manners, first dates are good times for manners, but after the third date you can let them slide a little bit – besides, most frum girls have just as poor table manners as frum guys.

Either Jews have done a great job evangelizing their brand of table manners, or most Americans grew up licking their fingers, waving their forks, and smacking their chops, but there are a lot of disgusting eaters out there.

Except for those with no table manners at all, most of the rest of us have their pet peeves.  My father wretched when he saw someone lick their fingers.  It was bad enough, he said, that they found it necessary to pick up the chicken bone and suck away at it rather than use an knife and fork, it was another thing altogether to lick the grease and thigh flecks. At the court of the early English kings, my father said, before the Italians had introduced silverware, lords and nobles reached and pulled, chomped and sucked, then wiped their hands on the dog. Even they knew better. I grew to hate the finger-licking habit as well, but thank God, it is one of the manners of Henry II and the Old West which has finally died out.

My wife always hectored my son for using his fork to make a point, wagging it, raising it, sweeping it across the table in an emphatic arc.  When he was little, the floor around his place was always littered with bits and pieces of food that didn’t make it into his mouth.  The maid said that he ate like a squirrel, and tried to get him to sit up straight.  One day I told him that to make life easier for him and to stop the pestering about manners, I would simply get him a lower chair so that his mouth would be at plate level.  “That way you can just shovel the food into your mouth and nothing will go on the floor”.  He looked at me, hoping it was true.  “He’ll never learn”, said my wife, “If you keep encouraging him”.

I have lived through a hundred pet peeves of others – eating too far from the table, too fast, too close to the plate.  Too much shoveling, hacking, and thrusting. We have a close American friend who lived in Paris for many years and socialized with the ‘best’ families. She had perfect table manners, but stood out at any informal American meal.  She ate like a nun or a lady of Queen Victoria’s court.  She sat so straight that the throw time from dish to mouth was easily a minute.  She chewed as slowly as a cow chewing her cud, patted her mouth with her napkin before she drank from her wine glass so as not to leave tell-tale blemishes on the rim.  Around her place there was never a bit of food, a drop of wine, or a crumb.  All had been consumed slowly, delicately, and carefully.

“You should have table manners like Elizabeth”, my wife advised us.  We all looked at her incredulously.  Elizabeth was her Platonic ideal, reminiscent of an earlier, better era of aristocratic manners and cultural sophistication.  “Are you kidding?”, we said in unison.

In an article in The New Republic (7.20.13) Charles Bethea writes about misophonia – a psychological disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with small, annoying sounds.

Some people are more than merely annoyed—certain sounds can send them into an agonized frenzy. There’s the journalist from Atlanta who wanted to reach across the dinner table to strangle his loudly chewing father; the computer scientist from Arizona who hated the sound of knives so much his girlfriend developed a phobia, too; the housewife from Oregon who moved her whole family out of her home so she wouldn’t have to listen to them. One teen couldn’t stand the sound of her mother sighing and, after going on anti-depressants, attempted suicide three times.

Chewing with an open maw gets most people; but according to this article and to the new scientific research studying misophones, it isn’t the disgust which causes psychological imbalance, it is the obsessiveness that puts people over the edge.

I knew someone who could pay attention to nothing else at the dinner table but people’s mouths.  He waited for someone to unstick their gums and start talking with their mouth full. It was the wait that was more irritating and distracting than the actual act.  He knew the transgression would occur, just not when.  He became transfixed, and when the cakehole finally opened and the chewer started to talk, he became transfixed.  Rather than turn away or look down at the turnip puree, or start a discussion with the diner to his left, he became fixated.  After the dinner was over he couldn’t contain himself and ranted about how the eater had ruined his meal, should go back to his cave and never come back out into civilized society.

For some people even obsession is too mild a term for their psychological discomfort:

When Tabachneck (an acquaintance of the author) was 14, he and his father were watching a movie together in their living room in Pittsburgh; Tabachneck’s dad started pushing all his ice-cream melt together into a puddle, repeatedly clinking his spoon against the bowl.

Up to that point in his life, Tabachneck’s relationship with sound had been normal. He loved music, enjoyed the sound of laughter. He found sirens and the trains that passed within earshot of his bedroom to be somewhat grating. But this clinking was something different—it provoked a combination of anxiety and nearly physical agitation that he couldn’t ignore. “Are you done with that yet?” he remembers shrieking at his father. It was the beginning of a lifetime of noise-related misery.

Few of us are immune to some form of misophonia. There is a man at the gym who always uses the treadmill, and at some point in his workout he starts to snort. At first it is nothing more than a little snuffling, a clearing of the nasal passages; but then it becomes more pronounced, and he sounds like a prize fighter in the ring.  The intervals shorten, the snorting becomes louder and more explosive, and by the end of his time on the rubber he is snorting full time.  I can’t keep my eyes off him. I can’t block out the animal noises and watch ESPN on the gym monitors.  I have to watch, wait, and suffer.

Bethea goes on to discuss misophonia more seriously and relates that it has become a matter of serious medical inquiry; and poor Tabachneck consulted every medical source he could find to help him out of his personal hell.  Nothing worked, so he resorted to temporary solutions.  For example, he resorted to sound-tamping earphones at movie theatres because they would drown out the maddening noise of patrons munching popcorn.

Misophonia, I suspect, is just the tip of the iceberg. Unhealthy obsessions with sights are just as bad.  For most of the table-manner freaks I know, it is not the sound of well-salivated chewing that bothers them, but the sight of dead, half-chewed, slimy, gooey meat that does them in.  Or the rapier fork. Or the boarding house reach.  I know people who are so obsessed with manners that they single out offending diners at restaurants – the meat-stabber in the corner; the gob-slopper by the window; the finger-licker by the counter.

“Table manners are not for you, but for me”, said my wife one day, exasperated at having to sit across from us animals feeding at the zoo.  “I am the one who has to look at you”. The point got across. Manners were not just an effete, mannered attempt to mimic the upper classes, a middlebrow, bourgeois affectation, but a way of keeping ugly, offensive sights, sounds, and gestures under wraps.

Table manners improved dramatically after that epiphany.


  1. I am writing to let you know about a new review of “misophonia.”

    The disorder is rare, and, unfortunately, infrequently identified by therapeutic or medical practitioners. It is often misdiagnosed as PTSD or OCD because of the common attribute of hypervigilance. The disorder is not recognized by the DSM-V and is not an anxiety disorder.

    The book provides compelling evidence that it is a developmental, neurological disorder, with similarities to Tourette. In fact, a small number of people with Tourette have the symptoms of “misophonia,” and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex are implicated in both disorders.

    The book offers the theory that a fundamental change in the brain results in an auditory stimulus being assessed as “danger!” and more importantly, as affective “pain!” The primer explores the neurobiology of pain assessment in the brain and demonstrates how the brain can experience the affect or unpleasantness of pain without any actual physical sensation.

    Sound-Rage. A Primer of the Neurobiology and Psychology of a Little Known Anger Disorder (Chalcedony Press, 210 pgs). Available from amazon.com and amazon.com.uk.

  2. Thanks neuroscience123 that is intestine to know. I actually find it repulsive and it does anger me when people chew with their mouth open and slurp loudly. I am certain it aggravates me as I find it rude and impolite. I am not however affected by someone eating a noisy food such as chips or nuts as long as their mouth is shut and they are not oblivious to how repulsive it is for another diner or anyone near by. I was raised to eat with my mouth closed and scolded if i ate like a cow. Its difficult to eat with my partner and his daughter as they slurp unnecessarily and slack jawed. I love them but I end up moving away or leaving the room as i am truly repulsed and irritated to the point of anger. Its upsetting.

  3. I am a Republican and I chew with my mouth closed, thankyouverymuch.

    1. Bringing party afiliation is totally uncalled for.


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