I remember the first time I realized I wasn’t the only person who was bothered by the sounds people make when they’re chewing–especially when they’re chewing loudly, and especially when they’re chewing with their mouths open. I was talking to a friend of mine, and although I don’t remember how the subject came up, I can vividly recall her response to it: “Ugh, I can’t stand it when people chew like that. Emilie, it makes me so mad I just want to punch them in the face!” I enthusiastically agreed. It was like finding my soulmate.
As it turns out, my friend and I are far from alone. Indeed, according to an article in the New York Times, the rage that’s triggered by mouth sounds like chewing loudly, humming, or snapping bubble gum may actually be part of a condition called misophonia (“dislike of sound”). At this point, the condition has been neither widely studied nor diagnosed.
Now, I’ll be perfectly honest: I wouldn’t put myself in the same category as people who experience blood-boiling levels of anger when exposed to mouth sounds. I’m also pretty sure my friend was exaggerating when she made the pronouncement I quoted above. But the very fact that a condition like misophonia exists got me thinking a little bit about manners–table manners in particular.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for my parents (and even my grandparents) to lecture me about chewing with my mouth open. Talking with a full mouth was also viewed as a cardinal sin. Although my family was and still is pretty far from formal, my sisters and I very quickly learned what kind of behavior was appropriate at the dinner table. As I go through life, I notice that many of the people around me weren’t taught the same lessons; or perhaps they just weren’t taught with the same amount of diligence. Whatever the cause, mouth sounds are far from rare, and if you’re bothered by them because of a physical or neurological condition or just because you find them annoying or impolite, you may find that in most situations involving food and humans, you’re out of luck.
To my mind, snapping chewing gum and chewing loudly are not only impolite habits, but also behaviors over which (for the most part) an individual should be able to exercise a certain amount of control. And yet whenever I find myself in a situation with someone who is noisily chewing away, I feel it would be rude to ask them to modify their behavior. This is, I’ve noticed, a pretty common phenomenon when it comes to manners in general: although you may feel that what another person is doing is a greater violation of manners than what you’re doing, you hesitate to say anything out of fear of being rude. It must be some sort of ethical paradox!
What accounts for this hesitation? Is it a lack of confidence in one’s own code of manners? A belief that the comfort of others should come before one’s own, even in cases where the comfort of others involves loud chewing? Whatever the explanation, I think that ultimately the mouth sounds contingent wins.
But who knows? Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the misphonics unite and lay siege to their loud-chewing counterparts.