Annoyed by Loud Chewing? The Problem Is You

Originally posted on the WallStreetJournal and written by Elizabeth Bernstein

If a loved one’s lip smacking bothers you, you need to learn to cope, therapists say; Don’t try to change a chewer


Christine Robinson was looking forward to a date night with her husband, Robert. She grilled flatbread veggie pizza, opened a bottle of Cabernet and lighted some candles.

Her husband took a sip of wine, swished it around in his mouth, then bit off the triangle tip of a pizza slice with a crunch. “The mix between the crispiness of the crust, the chewiness of the toppings and the slurping of the wine is what did it,” Ms. Robinson says.

She got up and turned on some classical music. But she could still hear his chewing. She turned the music up. That didn’t help. Then she asked her husband, “Please, slow down and enjoy the food.”

He snapped. “I am sorry I disgust you so much that we can’t even be in the same room together,” he told her, and stormed off.

If you can’t stand the sound of someone’s chewing, does that person need to close his or her mouth? Or do you?

Christine Robinson sometimes wears headphones when watching television with her husband Robert because they help block out the sound of him chewing popcorn. 

Experts say you do. Yes, some people have bad manners. But you can’t make everyone else change the way they eat just because it bothers you.

People who have an extreme aversion to specific noises—most often “mouth sounds” such as chewing or lip-smacking, but also noises such as foot-tapping, pen-clicking or sniffing—suffer from a condition called misophonia. While many people find some everyday sounds annoying, misophonia—in which the sensitivity disrupts a person’s life—may affect up to 20% of the population, researchers say.

There is a current debate among physicians whether it should be a psychiatric disorder. A documentary film that features people with the condition, “Quiet Please...,” arrives next summer.

A study of 483 people, published in October 2014, in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that misophonia sufferers say their lives are most impaired by their sensitivity to eating sounds at work and at school and least impaired at home. The researchers believe this is because family members might be more likely to adapt to a person’s sensitivity than colleagues, says Monica Wu, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the lead researcher on the study.

People who have misophonia often have symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression, although the researchers don't know if one causes the other, the study found. Experts theorize that misophonia may be caused, in part, by enhanced neural connections in the brain between the auditory, limbic and autonomic systems.

There are people who can’t watch movies in theaters because of popcorn crunching, stand in line at a store because of gum snapping, or be around their family when any kind of soup is being served. Everyone has an opinion about which foods (chips!), meals (breakfast!) and culprits (co-workers and spouses!) produce the worst noises.

Ms. Robinson, a 49-year-old part-time chief financial officer from Mission Hills, Kan., first realized that she couldn’t stand her husband’s chewing sounds 20 years ago, when the couple was dating and began to eat more meals at home where it was quieter.

Over the years, she has tried all sorts of coping methods: Turning up jazz music. Wearing headphones. Banning cereal from the house. Skipping family breakfasts. Sticking her fingers in her ears and humming “la la la la la.” Leaving the room. She estimates she has missed hundreds of meals over the years. But she still has arguments with family members over their crunching, snapping and slurping. One of her daughters is supersensitive to chewing sounds now, too.

Ms. Robinson is bothered by the chewing of others, not just her husband. Though she hasn’t been diagnosed by a doctor, she says she is aware of misophonia and feels solace knowing she’s not alone.

When she offended her husband on their date night, Ms. Robinson ran after him and told him, yet again: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

“I suspect it’s like living with anyone who has a disability,” says Mr. Robinson, 53, who sells software for a technology company. “I have to respect that if I want to spend quality time with my family.”

The experts are clear: The person who is annoyed by the sounds is the one who needs to change and learn coping skills. If others accommodate you by changing the way they eat, they are only enabling you.

It is never a good idea to tell someone else their chewing is bugging you. Joe Eure, 63, a sales manager for a telecommunications technology company from East Cobb, Ga., learned this the hard way, when he turned to a man behind him in a movie theater and said “Excuse me, I don’t know if you are aware, but your popcorn chewing is really loud. Can you just kind of tone it down?”

“He told me to buzz off, using different words,” Mr. Eure says. Then he chewed even louder. Now when Mr. Eure walks into a theater, he steers clear of anyone with popcorn. He also buys his own popcorn which he chews with his mouth closed to drown out other sounds.

Don’t run away. You should avoid “temporary Band-Aids,” says Ms. Wu, of the University of South Florida. If you always put on headphones or move to another room, you aren’t fully participating in the relationship. The idea is to learn to tolerate the symptoms.

Tell yourself that it isn’t the other person’s fault. And that you want to be able to eat with your loved one, she says.

A form of cognitive behavioral therapy, called “exposure and response prevention,” has been shown to be effective for misophonia sufferers. The client is exposed to chewing sounds gradually—first on a tape, then from a stranger in the room and finally from his or her loved one. “After repeated exposure, they see they can tolerate it,” Ms. Wu says.

Chester Goad hates the sound of ice and chip crunching so much that he sometimes leaves the room when his family is eating and tells them to text him when they are done. He has also thrown bags of chips away when no one is looking.

When he goes on business trips, his wife and son hold “crunch fests”—they load up on chips, pretzels and ice-filled drinks, turn the TV and munch away. Often, his son will call him via FaceTime and bite into a chip loudly, on purpose. “It’s a way for them to deal with the situation,” says Mr. Goad, 43, director of disability services for a university who lives in Crossville, Tenn. “And because I am separated from the crunching I can kind of chuckle.”