This is The Gum Principle: “Whenever someone offers you a piece of gum, you should say yes, even if you don’t want gum or even hate gum. You should say yes, because ‘want a piece of gum?’ can also be an extremely polite and tactful way of saying ‘you have terrible breath’.”
The Gum Principle is broadly applicable to a lot of life, however. Sometimes people think we need help with something, but suggestions that we need help are unfortunately often seen as hostile or insulting. So helpful people who also have a sense of tact and decorum will frequently try to find ways to help solve the problem without ever calling attention to it as a problem, in so many words.
Maybe the world would be better if we were all more direct? I’d like to think so, but hurt feelings are a thing and we obviously developed social norms for a reason, so maybe it’s better that we improve our ability to navigate these nuances rather than try a brute force strategy.
I’ve heard of some really extreme examples of application of the Gum Principle. One story I heard was of employees at a business who got a new co-worker who seemed to have terrible personal hygiene, despite being a nice guy. He just… stunk, to put it mildly. No one wanted to be the one to tell the nice but awkward and shy new guy that he reeked, so instead they invited him to the gym with them, then afterwards when they all stank from an intense workout they shared personal hygiene tips with each other – loudly, and secretly for the benefit of the new guy. It worked, and the new guy started showing up to work perfectly fine.
That’s a lot of effort to spare someone a little embarrassment, of course. It was extremely nice of those guys, but the important thing is this – if the new guy had said “no thanks” to the gym trip, now the other guys are forced to just say “Okay, we were trying to be subtle, but dude you need to shower and buy some new deodorant. Or ANY deodorant.”
The Gum Principle means you should generally accept offers of help and assistance, even if you think you don’t need it. If your boss offers to pay for a sensitivity course for you “because you might enjoy it,” then you should say yes, because they might really be saying “you’re a huge jerk and if you don’t stop we’re going to fire you.”
Of course, sometimes gum is just gum. But what’s the harm in saying yes? You might accidentally do a bunch of self-improvement stuff that you didn’t plan on? Oh, boo hoo.
Once I embraced the Gum Principle, a nice side benefit for me was I started being more honest with myself, and even with others, about my weak points. Now, if someone offers me gum I’ll often make a joke out of talking about the Gum Principle, and then I can feel more comfortable just asking if my breath is bad. Sometimes they say “no it’s fine, I was just being polite” and sometimes they say “take the gum, dude. And stop eating liverwurst and onion sandwiches, dear lord.”