Obama’s chewing gum habit: A diplomatic faux pas in India?

During his visit to India, President Obama was once again spotted chewing gum at a public event. Diplomatic faux pas or a public struggle with nicotine addiction? 

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
President Barack Obama, left, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, smile as they talk during a reception in the Mughal Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi, India, Jan. 26.

Talk about a sticky situation.  

President Obama, in India for a state visit, was chided by local press after he was spotted chewing gum during Monday’s Republic Day parade, which celebrates the day that India’s 1950 constitution went into effect.

Calling the incident “an ungainly sight,” the Times of India reported: “In the picture captured by cameras and posted on Twitter by some users, Mr. Obama was spotted removing his chewing gum while [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi was seen trying to explain something to the US president.”

The incident is the latest report on the president’s increasingly documented habit. He has been seen chewing gum at all manner of events, not least during his own inauguration.

In June last year, Obama was caught chewing away during the televised ceremony of a World War II commemoration – much to the chagrin of some French and British viewers.

The president’s habit also drew a similar reaction from Chinese netizens when he attended November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing with gum in his mouth.

“This is in the American manner and humor, but in traditional Chinese culture, it is immature and not serious behavior!” The Wall Street Journal quoted one blogger saying.

Obama has also been knocked by Republicans for his gum habit. Following the incident in China, columnist Charles Krauthammer took to Fox News to voice his complaint: “My mother used to say, ‘Don’t chew gum.’ And that was just in class. Look, the Chinese of all people have been extremely sensitive to the rituals, the decorum, the subtleties, the deference of diplomacy. This goes back 3,000 years! In China, chewing gum is a sign of disrespect.”

While that may or may not be true – gum sales are growing at double-digit rates in the Chinese market, The Wall Street Journal reported last year – etiquette around gum-chewing certainly varies from culture to culture.

For instance, chewing gum in public is seen as especially vulgar in France and New Zealand, according to the 2012 book, “Global Business Etiquette: A Guide to International Communication and Customs.” In Germany, chewing gum while conversing is considered extremely rude as well.

And it's not that the president chews gum for fun. A longtime smoker, Obama reportedly chews Nicorette to help kick the habit. He says it isn't about vanity or disrespect. It's an alternative to smoking in public, according to the Washington Post:

His aides described his quest to kick cigarettes as a “lifelong struggle.” “I was one of these teenagers” who smoked, he said in 2009. “And so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it’s been with you for a long time.” 

If that doesn't sound like a good enough reason for the US commander-in-chief to be seen masticating during televised world events, reporter Benazir Shah tweets another, possibly more diplomatic, Band-Aid:

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