Why no elbows on the table?
We’ve all been told not to put our elbows on the table while dining…but why? This is probably near the top of “Etiquette Don’ts” proclaimed by parents to their children.
In my dining etiquette classes and in my online videos I teach about this “No Elbows on the Table” policy. Every now and then I get asked: “But Why?”
Here’s the gist of why we have this on the list of etiquette “Don’ts.”
Earlier civilizations realized that placing elbows on the table invaded your table mates space and could be considered aggressive, having the potential to start a fight. According Margaret Visser, who wrote The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, “People got scared when you started having bad manners.” So, the importance of staying within the boundaries of your knife and fork was stressed as good manners.
There’s even a reference to elbows on the table in the Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Bible 41:19 (aka the Wisdom of Sirach). “Before your neighbors, be ashamed of theft. Be ashamed of breaking a promise, of leaning on the dinner table with your elbows, of stinginess when you are asked for something.” So, if the good book talks about this, we should pay attention…right?
A more modern and practical explanation is that when you place your elbows on the table, you have the potential to block conversation between the people on either side of you. And you run the risk of getting food on your clothing. Nobody wants to explain to their dry cleaner why there’s a gravy stain on their elbow.
There are some who would give a certain allowance for placing elbows on the table. American etiquette expert Emily Post said that placing your elbows on the table in a casual dining situation is okay, as long as you are not eating or drinking. This allows you to lean in to the conversation at the table. Basically, she said it’s okay between courses.
Even though the “No Elbows on the Table” rule may have originated from a now outdated purpose of safety it remains a tradition that we teach in the etiquette world today.
That’s a great question! Many people think that etiquette is obsolete and manners are a thing of the past. Before we dive into that let’s talk about what manners and etiquette are. We use these two words interchangeably when they are actually two different things.
Consider etiquette as a code of behavior or guidelines to help us maneuver social situations. We use etiquette in just about every part of our lives without realizing it. (e.g., rules for driving, sports, etc….) Manners are how we live out these codes of behavior; how we treat one another. They can change over time and are different across cultures and countries.
Now that we know the difference between manners and etiquette, do they still matter?
I believe they do, now more than ever.
As of this writing, we’ve recently come out of a worldwide lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve been sitting in front of our computer screens for the last three years dressed from the waist up to a “T”, while the waist down was more pajama bottoms with tea stains. Our interpersonal skills have become a little rusty from all those virtual meetings. Now that we’ve stepped out from behind the screens, our basic manners, like saying “Hello” to a co-worker when they walk into the room, are missing to some extent.
Manners and etiquette are not only for in-person interactions. Before Covid, we interacted with people from across the globe through social media and online platforms. As we’ve continued virtual meetings in many aspects of our lives, we are taking those global connections even deeper. To do this successfully we need to have a certain level of emotional intelligence. Having a self-awareness of how our actions and words affect others allows us to interact with anyone, without offending or insulting. Self-awareness is one of the core teachings in etiquette.
While practicing good manners allows us to be courteous, thoughtful, and civil toward each other. Knowledge of proper etiquette allows us to feel comfortable. When we know the code of behavior or “rules” in social situations we can be at ease and confident. This allows us to focus on our interactions with others, rather than what fork we should be using or which water glass is ours.
One of the reasons I’m passionate about etiquette is because it helps me be more self-confident in certain social situations. My passion for this became evident when we were all stuck at home during the height of the pandemic lockdowns. While everyone was taking up a new hobby or learning to bake sourdough bread, I started sharing tips about manners and etiquette on TikTok. I soon realized my content was resonating with people. It gave me great satisfaction to help people with their etiquette questions or dilemmas. I decided to become a certified etiquette trainer because I wanted to help people have that same confidence in social situations that I do.
The bottom line is that having good manners and knowing proper etiquette is not snobbish or elitist or stuffy or boring. Instead, they allow us to live in a society where we care about one another and our effect on them.
So yes, manners and etiquette still matter.