My Au Pair has Awful Table Manners

by cv harquail on December 2, 2010

Dear AuPairMom Readers —

What do you do when your (otherwise great, fabulous) AP has ATROCIOUS table manners – think smacking and chewing sounds not even heard at a trucker convention! Chews with mouth open, talks with mouth full of food, slurps drinks, smacks lips when chewing….it is REALLY LOUD.201012021934.jpg

It is also setting a really bad example for my kids, who have pretty good table manners. My own boys (ages 6 to 14) use silverware not fingers, put their napkins on their laps, ask nicely for things to be passed, ask to be excused from the table, clear their place, don’t drink and eat at the same time, chew with their mouths closed. (Okay, this is 90% of the time, the other 10% I am reminding them of specific manners).

The point is, my DH and I have gone to a lot of trouble to teach our boys good table manners. So it is appalling when I’m telling 6yo – don’t make noise when you eat – and AP is next to him making loud smacking noises with every chew of the cud!

I must stress that this AP is otherwise great. Her other manners, away from the table, are good (she says please, thank you, she’s considerate, etc.) She just seems to have missed the memo on table manners.

I’m aware that part of this may be cultural, and that what passes for good manners at home may not be working for her here.

I also concerns me that her manners don’t offer a good model for the boys. I can’t tell them not to talk with food in their mouths while she’ll telling a story through a mouthful of… well let’s not get into it.

Also, her manners are likely to make a bad impression anywhere else in North America, not just at our family table.

In truth, crewing with her mouth open, smacking her lips, and so make my stomach turn. Our family eats together with our AP five nights a week at least, and there is no way to avoid noticing her manners.

How can I bring this up? How much can I say?

E. Post


Dear Emily,

Once I had shared a grad student office with a perfectly nice Finance student from X, who, when he had a cold, would snuffle up and swallow– or spit into the waste basket — all his snot. When I had a cold, I would quietly blow my nose into a kleenex, and fold it up and put it in the wastebasket. Two very different strategies, and his grossed me out.

Turns out, another grad student told me, that for a X guy to blow his nose into a tissue, and to blow it more than once into the same tissue, seemed gross to him. Who wants to touch a tissue damp with snot? My office mate was grossing me out, and I was grossing him out.

How did I handle it?

I traded offices with another grad student. [ Note, I don’t know what exactly is considered polite to do with mucus if you are a X male.] The point is, we each thought we were acting politely.

Okay so maybe that story has grossed you out. Maybe it’s a digression. Maybe it just creates space for me to get in another cat picture.

I think it’s okay for you to tell your au pair that you’d like to share with her what Americans think are good table manners, and ask her to model them for your boys. As we all know, what’s polite is culturally determined, and it’s perfectly okay to ask her to practice common American manners.


We feel fine asking our au pairs to drive on the right side of the road and to sunbathe topless only in the back yard, because we can explain that these choices are not good or bad, they are just ‘what people do here’ and so that’s how we do it too.

Also, things like table manners, phone manners, and greeting & salutation manners, are the easy things to learn so that you can flex into many cultures. Similarity (and okay, conformity) to these conventions are what help you create a space to participate in the culture.

And, it never hurts to emphasize that it’s about teaching the kids what’s right to do in the USA….

Other thoughts Parents? APs?

See also:
Hello? Your Au Pair needs good “phone manners”
Is it Cultural, Generational, or just Me?


Taking a Computer Lunch December 2, 2010 at 10:55 pm

We had an Asian AP who behaved similar to what you have described, although not as extreme. We were riding herd on her for other deficiencies, and so I think she would have melted if we had told her she was being rude at the table. We chalked it up to cultural differences, but I think she noticed that we used words to tell someone how delicious a dish was, rather than loud sounds. Our son never said, “But X eats like that.” He knew his rules were different, just as they are different for his sister. The Camel, after all, has appalling mealtime behavior, and if I could get her to stop launching bits of meal she can’t swallow across the floor, then she wouldn’t be called The Camel anymore.

I do suggest, before you begin the mealtime conversation, that you bring up all her good qualities and frame your discussion in terms of American cultural norms. “You may not have noticed, but here we don’t…” “I prefer you set a good example for my sons by…” “I know you find this awkward, but…” And just as you might thank your sons for not having to be reminded to be polite, privately thank your AP when she improves.

momto2 December 3, 2010 at 12:49 am

We hosted a couple of AP’s with disturbing table manners. We are actually pretty tolerant about most things, but manners are one area we can be kinda unyielding.

One AP developed a horrible case of acne, likely due to an excessive use of body lotions and oils in lieu of showering. She would actually sit at our table and pick at her pimples, squeezing out gunk while we were eating. Then she would examine the product between her fingers before brushing the crud off onto our kitchen floor. Then she would eat her meal without even washing her hands. (MMMMmmmmm. Blech!) We were stunned. We were disgusted.

Another AP could inhale her entire meal in less than 5 bites. Seriously. Her spoon was like a shovel, and she could practically dislocate her jaw (like a snake!) to work it around a pile of food. Our kids watched in amazement, but then the inevitable questions were asked as to why the APs didn’t have to use the same manners they had to use. We were worried the kids would pick up bad habits, but we also knew we couldn’t count on these folks to reinforce manners we felt were important.

We decided to make up note cards for our kids with helpful “reminders” on them to post up on the bulletin board in our kitchen next to the table. The cards have notes on them like, “please don’t talk with your mouth full of food,” “please don’t smack your lips when you eat,” “please take small, manageable bites,” and “please say thank you to whomever prepared your meal,” etc, etc. The kids can see the note cards when they are eating, and they remind each other if someone forgets a rule.

When our new AP arrived a couple of months ago, she saw the note cards and read them, translating them with her dictionary if she didn’t understand a word. We hadn’t actually intended to use the note cards to train our APs, but I have to say I am glad it worked out that way. This AP has great manners, and mealtimes are very enjoyable.

DCMom December 3, 2010 at 12:36 pm

We try to (perhaps passive-aggressively) get the message through by what we say tot he kids in front of the AP. For example, we might say “It’s so great how you are chewing with your mouth closed! It’s never, ever polite to do that.” or “Please don’t talk while you have food in your mouth” – just to get the point across to the AP. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t.
Our biggest problem has been with double dipping – we had an AP who consistently took a bit of a chip or veggie, then dipped it into dip, ate it, and then re-dipped it into the dip, over and over again. Nauseating! I never knew what to do – it seemed rude for me to say “please don’t do that, it’s gross” because it wasn’t an obvious cultural thing, it was just gross…

Nina December 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

No, you’re wrong there, it probably is a cultural thing. I do the re-dipping thing, and when I sit down to game evenings and so there are chips and dips out, other people do the same. This was in Germany, Greece, Italy, France and England.

I think you should tell her up front that in the US, that is not acceptable table behaviour, and that she should do it like X, Y or Z. Again, this probably is cultural, my boyfriend (from Greece) is a strong believer that making noises when you eat is a positive thing, because it shows you are enjoying the meal and is a compliment to the chef. It just sets my teeth on edge!

NY Hostmom December 6, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Thanks to Seinfeld, we have been given a phrase for this dipping issue. It’s called “double dipping”. Our children (who have never seen Seinfeld) actually start talking about the importance of not “double dipping” before the dip arrives at the table and they are the “double dipping police”. Perhaps announce “no double dipping please” to everyone at the beginning in a funny way and the point will get across without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Table manners are relative. My husband (who is socially acceptable in the US) offended a few people in India on a business trip when he turned his back and sneezed into a tissue at the dinner table. Culture there dictates that one leave the table and sneeze/blow your nose far away from everyone else. A kind Indian let him know this custom after the dinner and he won’t do that again!

Jennifer December 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm

We have also tried to correct bad behavior by pointing it out in our kids. Didn’t really work.

Your kids are older too so they are aware that some people are lacking in table manners. It helped my kids see what the AP did wrong and help teach my kids to make other choices. They have to deal with all kinds of bad manners in the school lunchroom so I’m sure it’s not a big surprise to them – except now they are seeing an adult do it. Our AP didn’t eat with us often so not something I really had to deal with.

Shana Medah December 3, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Since this is an issue not just in your family, but wherever your au pair goes while in the US, I would gently bring it up to her. You probably have a sense of whether she can tolerate a direct approach (I notice that you do X at dinner. In the US, this is considered bad manners) or some of the more indirect approaches mentioned above, like reinforcing the desired behavior for your kids. Some people are more perceptive than others, and some hear indirect messages better than others. If you do go for the direct approach, you may want to add that this isn’t personal – that as her host family, you are there to guide her in learning how to function well in US culture. Acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable for you to have to say it if you think it will help make the message less personally threatening. Most people don’t want to behave in a way that is offensive to others, and she might very well appreciate you letting her know how other people will perceive her if she behaves this way at the table. Keep in mind, however, that just because she knows it’s bad manners doesn’t mean that she will be able to remember to do things according to US customs. In my DH’s country, it’s extremely bad manners to accept or offer anything with the left hand, as it is considered unclean. I know that intellectually, but since left handed-giving and taking has no significance in my culture, I continually shock people by doing just that because I forget. It may be the same with your au pair – her table manners are probably outside her conscious awareness, and it might take some gentle reminding to help her develop a new habit.

franzi December 3, 2010 at 4:04 pm

i agree with shana – you know if you can approach your AP directly or not. if you can, sit her down, tell her about the many great qualities she has but that there is this one thing called table manners that have not worked out so well thus far. if you can’t approach her directly you can either hope for the indirect way by correcting your kids.

OR (and this really depends on your kids and on the fact that it should be set up so that it does not undermine APs credibility or stance towards the kids): have your kids ask her why she talks with her mouth full with food or why she smacks her lips or why she slurps her drink etc. have the kids tell her what is polite and what is expected. i am sure she has learned other things from the kids, too so she will pick this up also.

regarding double-dipping (DD), i have not heard the term before my AP year and in my culture it’s not really an issue (nevermind that ever since i have become VERY aware of DD and it grosses me out). in a situation just jokingly say “hey, did you just double-dip?” explain the term if it is unclear to the AP and while your at it you can tell her that it is unwanted in your home (or teach her to turn around the carrot so that the part that has not been eaten from can now be dipped).

Former Aupair December 3, 2010 at 6:58 pm

There are mant cultural differences between USA and South America for example. because we are not so worry about germs as people are here, things like double-dip, share a glass of water, even get a bite of something with your mouth, is very normal! I still DD sometimes when I forget, just because I’m not use to it. We just dont have this concept of germs, share germs.. etc… We don’t wash our hands all the time, or have hand sanitizer everywhere….

aussie mum December 4, 2010 at 6:59 am

well you are the type of aupair that does not last long in my home…good hand hygiene is the most effective method of prevention infection. I have had to reprimand aupairs to wash their hands before they prepare food for my daughter…some don’t even wash their hands after going to the toilet….and there is NO excuse for that, no matter what your culture is. You work with children, you are handling food-WASH YOUR HANDS!

Nina December 4, 2010 at 10:31 am

This is why you need to be upfront with your AP about what you find acceptable. I mean, I can understand washing your hands before and after touching raw meat, or baking, but I can’t see the problem if you’re just preparing pasta, beans on toast or whatever. This doesn’t seem to mean I make a terrible AP, in fact, my HF share the same opinion as me that children need germs whilst they are young, fit and active, so that their immune system will become stronger and they’ll live a healthier adult life. This doesn’t mean to say that yours system is wrong, just different, and it’s not very nice to tell someone that they wouldn’t last two seconds in your house and criticise them when you don’t know them or their childcare skills, and she probably would follow your hygiene rules were she under your roof, just because they have a different opinion. I’m sure if someone criticised your parents skills for having a different opinion on something, you’d be deeply insulted.

Taking a Computer Lunch December 4, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I’m sorry if I’m rude, but blecch! I’m not one to use Purel or to wash my hands constantly (except when I’m cooking), but if you go to the bathroom, wash your hands! While kids need to be exposed to virus germs, they don’t need to be exposed to bacteria! It won’t make them healthier adults, it will make them sick! Studies show that when children wash their hands before eating the adults around them are less likely to get sick, too. (My son and his classmates had a great run of strep throat in kindergarten – it was only a strict hand-washing routine that brought it to a halt – and school attendance improved.)

Oh, and for those of you caring for little kids, washing your hands after wiping a little nose will decrease your chances of getting sick.

aussie mum December 5, 2010 at 8:59 am

Nina, if you think its ok to not wash your hands before you handle any food regardless of whether its pasta, beans, toast or meat, you seriously are putting the children and families that you are supposed to be caring for, at major risk. That is the real risk of food poisoning, gastroenteritis, just to name two!

(next paragraph edited, since the language was pointed and focused on person. We are more comfortable focusing on problem behavior. General points: Handwashing is important, being ‘relaxed’ about thorough handwashing would not cut it for this host mom, who is a medical professional. She asks that folks reconsider, and wash hands with soap whenever food is being handled. cvh)

Aupairgal December 5, 2010 at 9:57 am

I think we need to cool it here. There is no need to attack anyone here nor is the extreme accusatory tone appropriate. Whether one feels they are correct or not does not give them the right to be disrespectful.

[Thanks AuPairGal- I caught the comment and edited it. cvh]

Nina December 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Well that’s funny because I’ve already completed my year and I never got one complaint ;)

Calif Mom December 8, 2010 at 12:59 am

At risk of alienating anyone, the concept of “being exposed to germs to build a strong immune system” is subject to strong debate EVEN BY SCIENTISTS who spend their careers researching these questions. While there is something to be said for building a strong immune response, there is still much that the scientific community has not yet agreed upon. These scientists are learning about our immune systems every day. It’s just not that simple as saying “catching diseases is good for children”.

It is well documented that illnesses–even a relatively minor cold or flu–can delay development in babies and toddlers. Doesn’t mean a kid who gets the flu at age 2 won’t be valedictorian of her high school, but it absolutely can set a kid back in a measurable way. Plus, it’s just plain miserable to have a cold. Why would you want more of them? Why would you want to put your kids through it if you didn’t have to?

And scientists do know that children are one of the most effective carriers of diseases in communities. We also know that preventing transmission of diseases like influenza and pertussis among children is key to preventing deaths among elderly and people who have high risk for bad outcomes (H1N1 is a one-off and didn’t affect seniors disproportionately last year, but it absolutely DOES harm people with reduced immune responses, like pregnant women, people with transplanted organs, people undergoing chemotherapy, and on and on.)

So you may think we are being silly Americans with our germ phobia, making sure our children get vaccinations (pertussis killed 9 babies in Los Angeles last year, because people around them weren’t vaccinated–expect more of these outbreaks if people continue to opt out of immunizations or just don’t have access to them.). There is a lot of documentation coming out after the H1N1 pandemic of last year that proves that preventing the spread in kids saved the lives of others. It’s called “community immunity”. There are examples in Texas and Canada of communities that have measured the effect of immunizing almost all of a community’s kids and seeing what happened with disease transmission in their towns. It’s amazingly effective. Putting a protective bubble of immunized people around vulnerable people might mean that at least two of my adorable neighbors will make it through another winter without having a “minor” illness hospitalize or even kill them.

So yes, I carry alcohol hand sanitizer and we use it every time we eat if we are away from the house and can’t use soap and water.

And my kids yell at their Grandfather for double dipping.

The benefits of exposing people to disease “to build their systems” is scant; the benefit of saving lives by preventing disease spread is very real and credible to me.

[departs soapbox]

DeniceS December 3, 2010 at 10:22 pm

I am AP and I have great table manners! I eat silently, don’t smack my lips, drink while I eat, wait for everybody to come to the table so we can start the dinner and never leave the table if I have finished first, but I wait for everybody to finish and then thank to the person who has cooked the meal.
However, what do you do when your HP are very noisy while eating? Firstly, I know for sure than they don’t wash hands after they use the toilet and I feel disgusted by the idea that they cook me dinner with those hands. Secondly, not to mention their poorly shower programme. Once or twice a week is enough. But I can get over it…more germs will make me have a great immunity. What I find vvv annoying is the sounds they make while they eat. It drives me crazy! So I know exactly what you say!
Besides this, even though they know that I won’t start dinner unless is everybody gathered at the table, they don’t seem to care.
What do you do when your HP fart around you like nothing is wrong, when they blow their noses like trumphets (while we are serving dinner for god’s sake!), pick their noses and lick the plates after they finish all the food?
Believe me…I am counting the days until I finish my contract in this house.
Amuzing is that they believe about themselves that they belong to a ‘middle upper class’. This world is just mad!

BrAP December 7, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Be honest about your concerns with your AP. When we choose to be an AP, one of the things we commit to (and apply to) is learning from a different culture. So if anyone should give in anything in this case, is the AP.

But I guess that in extreme and unacceptable cases, HF and AP should talk and maybe meet in the middle. But be honest… the AP might feel a little uncomfortable, but as least she’ll know and try to understand your concern.

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