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The question

I have a co-worker who tends to eat with his mouth open, making a loud smacking sound. He usually eats his lunch and snacks at his desk, which is adjacent to mine, and the sound is getting to be very distracting. Is there a good way to tell a person you don't know very well to eat more politely?

The answer

Well, you're not alone. In a British survey conducted a while back "loud eating" was listed as the No. 1 most annoying thing people did at work.

The top-10 list of things that bugged people most about co-workers went like this:

Noisy eating

Messy colleagues

Not doing dishes

Smelly food


Not listening

Colleagues talking over you

Clicking pens

Personal phone calls

Complaining of illness

Personally, I would add: People in love with the mellifluous Mozartian melody that is the sound of their own voices hijacking meetings; backstabbing; ass-covering; people trying to pin their lazy mistakes on you; and stoolies ratting you out, then getting promoted for it.

But back to the survey. Noisy eating is the No. 1 complaint. It's kind of surprising – but then again maybe not. Everyone's eating at their desks these days. Fewer and fewer of us can afford to take the leisurely lunches of yesteryear.

Or maybe that's just the end of the financial spectrum I've always worked in. Maybe there are still some people who nibble their foie gras and sip martinis at restaurants with tablecloths in the middle of the day.

My ball cap's off to them. Me, I've always had the type of job where you scarf your lunch out of a Styrofoam clamshell at your desk.

In fact, reading the list, I've realized I am actually guilty of an annoying habit myself – No. 4: smelly lunches.

I like spicy food: jerk chicken, curries, kung pao. My co-workers would make comments like: "Phew, Dave, I can smell your lunch halfway down the hallway."

Always uttered in jocular, hail-fellow-well-met fashion, but I wonder if they might not be ripping me a new one the minute I leave the room.

Now, on to your case. I know some people might say: "Buy yourself a pair of noise-suppression headphones." Or: "Why not go retro and leave for lunch or just a walk and time it for when your colleague is engaged in high-decibel mastication?"

Or simply: "Suffer in silence." In the survey mentioned above, of the 57 per cent who complained about their colleagues' loud eating, more than 80 per cent said they would rather suffer in silence than say anything. (With a slightly higher percentage of men than women claiming they'd do something about it.)

But I don't agree. These are passive-aggressive solutions at best, and at worst, not really solutions at all. And it could lead to your rage simmering and bubbling like a cup of instant soup in the lunch-room microwave.

No, my suggestion is confront the problem directly. You ask if there's a "polite" way to do it and I say yes.

(Bearing in mind the essence of politeness is "trying to imagine the feelings of others." And in this case, I imagine your colleague will feel a little zinged.)

Be direct. Don't beat around the bush. And it should go without saying, don't have this conversation within earshot of anyone else.

Put on your nicest smile, be friendly, say your piece and get out of there fast. No hemming and hawing, and a minimum of circumlocution.

Twenty years of marriage have taught me this: For the first decade or so, if there was something not necessarily so positive my wife wanted to say to me, she'd beat around the bush, make me beg her to tell me what's wrong, then finally, tearfully relinquish the not-so-wonderful information or observation.

Now she just shivs me with it, prison yard-style: "Dave, I hate to tell you this, but [insert zinger here]." I prefer it this way. It can sting, but her blade's sharp, it's in and out fast, the wound heals quickly, and I'm ultimately better for it.

I would do the same with your colleague. Be polite, say your piece, go back to work. He may feel stung and even angry at first, but I would hope ultimately appreciate your courage and candour, and keep his mouth shut when he eats.

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