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Even though the “No Elbows on the Table” rule may have originated from a now outdated purpose of safety it remains a tradition that we teach in the etiquette world today.
Suzy Lins is a certified etiquette trainer located in Southern California. Educating on manners and etiquette to help people gain confidence to master business and social situations is the core of her teaching.