Bones to Pick

Is it cool to tell a business guest that he has stuff in his teeth?

Dear Social Grace,

I work at an office as a receptionist, and the other day I came across a delicate situation that I'm not sure I handled correctly.

Keep in mind that this is a very professional, conservative office where manners and formality are very important.

A guest came in for a meeting, and part of my job is to greet guests, show them to the conference rooms, and get them refreshments while they are waiting for the meeting to start. When the gentleman came in, I noticed that he had a large black thing on one of his teeth, which was very distracting. I know that if it were me, I would want to know about it, especially if I were going into an important meeting. I'm pretty sure it's OK to tell one's friends that they have a big black thing on their teeth, but is it OK in a business atmosphere?

I ended up telling him about it, but I'm not sure I did the right thing. There was no one else in the room at the time.

Via the Internet

Dear Front-Office Madam or Sir,

I'm almost certain you did the right thing -- I can't imagine anyone in your guest's situation notwanting to know that he had something in his teeth. I have only one small concern: I hope you were completely sure, before you brought the matter to his attention, that the black object was impermanent, a blemish that a quick drink of water would be able to resolve. (In your place, I might've offered a drink of water along with my whispered alert.)

In fact, we can call this the "Something in Your Teeth" rule: Letting someone know, privately and discreetly (as you did), that she has spinach in her teeth (or that he is trailing toilet paper from his shoe, and so on) is obviously a kind and thoughtful thing to do -- because such things are temporary (that is, immediately fixable or nearly so) and accidental (so no "blame" is implied).

But those criteria are veryimportant. It's neither kind nor thoughtful to point out problems that are not temporary and accidental -- for instance, taking a friend aside at a party to tell her that her jeans look too tight, that his hair color looks artificial under fluorescent light, or that you don't care for the name she chose for her new daughter. Please make sure you understand the distinction. And be aware that the "Something in Your Teeth" rule doesn't always translate to cultures traditionally more reserved than ours.

Dear Social Grace,

Since moving to the Bay Area, I've been annoyed that most servers here -- even at finer dining establishments -- don't wait until everyone is done eating before offering to clear the table of finished plates. I was raised to expect that a server should clear plates only when it is evident that everyone at the table has finished a course -- especially a main entree. A waiter should never hastily swipe plates one at a time, as each person finishes, because this leaves slower eaters like myself feeling rushed and awkward. Am I completely off base? When is the proper time for a waiter or buser to begin removing plates?

Sincerely,
Chris

Dear Chris,

I've thought of this phenomenon as more to do with our times than our location -- it seems to be the norm in just about every restaurant I dine in these days. But you're right: Plates should generally be cleared only when everyone at the table is ready (certainly something for dinner-party hosts to keep in mind). And you're right about why: You want to avoid rushing anyone or making anyone uncomfortable about being the last one eating.

So you're not off base. When I eat in higher-end restaurants, I, too, am a bit disappointed when servers begin removing plates right as diners finish (the practice doesn't bother me as much in establishments that don't cater to "special occasions"). Of course, I can't speak for every server or every restaurant, but it's highly likely that we are being rushed to finish our meals. It's in the restaurant's (and the server's) best interest to turn tables over quickly. And often, servers and busers must also consider their workloads. It may be most expedient to remove the plates they can, when they can. For reasons of practicality, restaurant staffers do several things that you wouldn't do in a home dining room.

But I bet that not many diners notice or care, as we do. Indeed, nowadays, many people are more concerned with dining speed than with leisurely enjoyment.

If you've finished eating and a waiter offers to remove your plate, you can direct him by saying, "Oh, not yet, please -- I think some people are still eating." But as a restaurant guest with a slower eating pace, you should probably just overlook this practice as much as you can. And if you notice that others are waiting an exceedingly long time for you to get through your last few bites of polenta, you might put down your utensils, in the name of being a "team diner."

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