“Mmm, that looks good.”<— Don’t do this.
If you live where I live, or somewhere similar to where I live, and you go to restaurants, you know this: sometimes restaurants can be cramped. Sometimes you will be seated so close to strangers that, were it not for largely symbolic air gap between your tables, you would essentially be a single party.
Sometimes you will get to the restaurant and think, oh good, not too crowded, and then because the restaurant’s host or hostess is a war-criminal level sociopath you will be seated right next to a strange party, so close that it is crazy, and you will think, damn.
Sometimes you will be seated at a table that is a group table and you are truly just sitting with a bunch of strangers, like you are at a hibachi restaurant or on a cruise ship. Except you are not. You are sharing a table at an on-land restaurant with one or two loved ones and several strangers.
Do not attempt to engage.
“Oh, I don’t engage,” you might be thinking. “Sometimes I’ll say something like—mmm, that looks good, if the stranger beside me orders and receives something that I think looks good. But I don’t engage.”
No. Oh my god—no, that is exactly what I’m talking about, you are so dumb that you didn’t assume that was exactly what I was talking about just now, no offense, but to be fair I said those exact words right at the beginning of the thing with an arrow pointing to them saying “don’t do this” and you should have picked up on it. An arrow!
Here’s what saying something like “mmm, that looks good,” does: It takes people out of a nice situation and puts them in a not nice one.
Say I’m the person who ordered the thing you’ve decided to comment on. I now have two options. First, I can engage with you in some way that acknowledges, mmm, yes, doesn’t it look good?, which is weird, I would rather not do that; or, second, I can pretend I didn’t hear you, which, of course, I did, because we are seated directly beside each other. An awkward and unnecessary moment.
Here’s what you do rather than make a stranger who is just trying to enjoy his or her night out at a restaurant react to an unsolicited comment: Nothing.
Or, if the dish truly looks good, so good that to fail to acknowledge its good-lookingness would be an affront to creation: Make an expression to the person who chose to dine with you. An expression that says, “Hey, that looks pretty good, right?” This person—not the total stranger about to consume the good-looking dish—is the person with whom you have elected to spend 60-90 minutes at a restaurant. “Speak” with this person. (Not literally.)
Maybe you look at the thing that looks good, then you look at your dining companion, and you make a “pretty good” face. Eyebrows up, mouth made to be a little smaller—I think you know the face I’m talking about. Make that face instead of talking. (Can you slightly, surreptitiously, point toward the dish while making the face? I would not, no. But if the pointing prevents you from speaking to a stranger: Sure.)
If you’re dining alone, do what you came to do: not speak. Isn’t that nice? You have to speak all the time. Shhh, ahh, yes, mmm, doesn’t that look good.
Another thing: you might hear the couple beside you talk about something and remember, oh yeah, I wanted to talk about that, too—or maybe, oh, we’ve hit a lull and, good idea, that is something we could also talk about.
“Ah—this person near me is talking about desalination plants—a topic about which I also have an opinion.”
“Oh—a person discussing Game of Thrones—my dining companion and myself haven’t talked about Game of Thrones yet, good idea.”
No. You should also not do this.
We have to sit very close to each other, yes, because this is the restaurant we read about, and we’ve each had this reservation for a month. Fine. We don’t have to break our unspoken agreement to act like we can’t hear and aren’t listening to everything the person next to us is talking about, even though we, for sure, are doing that. To take your conversational cues from your table neighbors is the equivalent of wearing the same outfit to a party—worse, of going to a party, seeing someone in a dress you own and like, and then changing into that dress at the party.
If you’d like to talk about desalination plants, remember desalination plants, and talk about them in 20 minutes. If you’d like to talk about Game of Thrones, you dork, why are we having dinner.
You might think, “What’s wrong with being friendly?” I say, what’s wrong with minding your own business?! Are you so desperate for friends that you have to be friendly with the people arbitrarily seated next to you during a night out—a night when they would like to talk to each other, or, perhaps a night when they would like to talk to no one because they are dining alone, something they like doing just as much if not more than dining with others specifically because of how they don’t have to make conversation with anyone?
You should be less desperate, it is not cool how desperate you are.
There is a time and a place for being friendly and neighborly. Volunteer, or something. Have a block party if you want to be friendly so bad. Go to a community meeting and voice your opinion about the street lights that are too bright now all of a sudden. Talk to your neighbor about alternate side parking, or his new dog, or the parrots in the tree, if your neighbor is outside and seems like he wants to talk.
But don’t say “mmm, that looks good” at a restaurant.