No Elbows on the Table?

Posted on 16 Nov 2012 15:40 by EricT


You may have gotten this rule drilled into you as you were growing up. Get your elbows off the table! It's not mannerly to place your elbows on the table, lean forward, and get all comfortable during dinner. What is the origin of this etiquette rule? Is it about formality or something more practical?

Well, it could be a little of both. First of all, in "stately" society, any appearance of being overly indulged in your food might be seen as low and peasant-like. So leaning forward, placing your elbows on the table, and, God forbid, embracing your plate with one arm while you lean over it to shovel food into your mouth, would show you to be of "low stock." You are not supposed to make a big deal about your food and act like you are starving. This is still part of our culture and although we all might eat quickly and without regard for appearance from time to time, when we see someone else at the table doing it, we find it a bit off-putting.

But while some tenets of table etiquette really are quite arbitrary rules of stiff formality, other manners are simply about being polite and considering the comfort of others. The no elbows on the table rule is one of those, at least partly.

This rule probably started way back in medieval times, during the famous feasts. Imagine a big old medieval feast given by a ruler or lord. Everybody and their mother wants to go to it, and boast about how they dined with such and such. Most of these feasts would have been served on long tables with benches instead of seats. People would pack in like sardines and there simply was no room to have your elbows on the table without jostling your neighbor and disrupting his ability to eat. Allowing your elbows to nudge the guy next to you and hit his arm while he's bringing some food to his mouth would be obviously rude. As well, such accidents could cause quarrels, or even violence to break out.

No elbows on the table? Where did this rule come from?

Even today, if you go out to dinner with more than a couple of people, having your elbows on the table could cause a fork mishap, knock over glasses, pull the tablecloth (which would also knock over things), and get in the way of the server placing dishes on the table.

But sitting down to a long dinner and conversation while remaining bolt upright and keeping your elbows, and arms, off the table isn't very comfortable. What do we do about it? Well, instead of worrying about the rule, just think of the personal space of those around you and the formality of the situation. During a formal occasion among strangers or people you want to impress, or at least not to offend, abide by the rule, regardless, as you don't want to appear too "at home" or familiar, by encroaching on the space of your neighbors. With friends and family, simply consider the personal space of those around you as well. If there is plenty of room you can probably make yourself a bit more comfortable. But once the dinner is clear and you are having conversation, maybe with just drinks being consumed, your friends are probably not going to mind if you lean forward with your elbows on the table, etc. and the rule was always meant for when you are eating only. You know if a friend is the kind of friend you can let loose and be yourself around. So go by your gut.

Miss Manners, or Judith Martin, another self-proclaimed arbiter of all things proper and mannerly, agrees: "[The rule] applies only when one is eating, not when one is lingering over a completed meal or attending a meeting around a conference table."

Left Hand Down By Your Side While Dining

This is another, less commonly known and practiced, etiquette rule. I actually got this one drilled into my head and always found it quite impractical. The rule is that you should always keep your left hand, or your non-dominant hand, pinned down by your side while eating. It's an old and distinctly Anglo-Saxon rule and this one, folks, is quite ridiculous and arbitrary. Yes, you are allowed, within this rule, to use your other hand to help cut meat or as generally needed to deal with the food, but you should immediately put down any extra utensil, such as a knife, and return the free hand back to its immobile prison. Try it and see how much you enjoy your dinner! As Emily Post said way back, "That one should pretend to have a paralyzed left hand is not in accord either with traditional behavior or with good sense." However, she allowed that it is a good habit to instill in children as it helps to teach them to keep their free hands to themselves, or not to prop their heads on their free hand while they eat, or whatever else they may get up to with the hand they aren't using. This actually worked for me, as although I left behind the "paralyzed left hand" act, I never had to think about not having my elbows on a crowded table with mixed company…it was automatic.

Yet, this rule of the invisible hand was not the case on the European continent, where diners usually were encouraged to keep both hands in plain sight on the edge of the table at all times. Therefore, the rule might be more like "Elbows are not allowed on the table but the hands must be visible at all times." Why? Because there's no telling what people might get up to with that hand down below the table. People were quite often itchy in the old days, not having a morning shower like we do, and they were apt to scratch at the table; bad manners indeed. In fact, "don't scratch yourself at the table" was a rule that could be found in the medieval etiquette code books along with "blow your nose before drinking but don't blow your nose noisily." You may also be surprised to learn that when the napkin was first introduced to the French, it was considered vulgar to wipe your mouth with it. Yep. And by the way, don't pick your teeth with your knife.

1. Visser, Margaret. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
2. Patrick, Bethanne Kelly., and John M. Thompson. An Uncommon History of Common Things. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.
3. Martin, Judith. Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005.
4. Scully, D. Eleanor, Terence Scully, and J. David. Scully. Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1995.

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