When Can You Call Out a Rude Diner?
(Hint: Probably Best to Be Armed.)

Tough choice.
Tough choice.

I recently had dinner at a restaurant where the seating was shoved so close together that it was hard to keep my elbows off my neighbors' tables while I was cutting my steak.

The closeness didn't bother me, but it meant I was privy to almost everything my fellow diners said -- including a tipping decree with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

"You never tip on tax," a man explained to his date.

Granted, there is no accepted alchemy of tipping: Restaurant goers still dither about a baseline tip percentage, and whether tax and alcohol are tippable.

But, as a former waitress, I firmly believe it's stingy to tip on the pre-tax total, and seriously considered explaining my position to my table neighbor, until a sense of decorum and my husband stopped me. Restaurant etiquette calls for patrons to pretty much ignore one another, even when they're seated inches apart.

I'm willing to yield on the tip-on-tax question, but I've been wondering whether other comments would have justified my intervening. What if he'd loudly announced his intention not to tip at all? Or said something horribly offensive that had nothing to do with restaurant-going? What if he'd yelled at his date or told a racist joke?

The question of calling out strangers isn't unique to dining, of course: Americans are constantly negotiating the boundaries between public and private spheres. But I'm not sure a restaurant table is as intimate a space as some eaters believe.

Eating out involves eating with other people -- and not just the people at one's own table. That's what makes restaurants exciting. I don't know if there are any situations in which it's appropriate to reprimand a fellow diner, but I am surprised at how infrequently restaurant goers interact. The fun of dining out is found in remembering there are other people in the room -- even if they don't know how to leave a proper tip.

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