Bad manners

Why is it bad manners to have elbows on the table while eating?

As a child, this was explained to me by my mother, who was an expert on good manners. I know this is true because she told me so - and also because she went to a posh convent school.

She said that most “good manners” are based on practical issues. Leaning on your elbows is bad manners because you are leaning forwards in your seat, out over the table. People on each side of you are unable to see past you down the table, and cannot speak to the person on the other side of you.

Wait, so you’re not supposed to lean forward while you eat? I never heard that before. That makes eating soup quite a challenge.

I was always told it was bad because it was “lazy”. :dubious:

IMO, manners are often simply a matter of someone rich/famous/powerful deciding that they like/dislike something and everyone else following along with the whim. After a while, it simply becomes the accepted practice.

Also, the definition of “elbows” changes, too.

In some USAnian regions / classes / cultures, it is expected that you will rest your forearms or hands on the table while eating.

In others, the forearms are classed under the “elbows” prohibition, and you are expected to eat with one hand in your lap (except when actually using it, e.g., to cut meat).

I’ve seen the “elbows off the table” comment used when no actual elbows were involved, only forearms. It was very confusing for a literal-minded child from a different background.

If you pay attention in restaurants while traveling, you can clearly see the regional change in “good manners”.

In fairness to my mother, who was indeed a fair lady*, that was not the point.

Clearly, normal eating requires some leaning forward and back. However, if you lean on your elbows, you are in a fixed position leaning out over the table. You are continuously blocking the sight-line of other people. They can’t communicate with each other, and also can’t see who’s bogarting the white wine at the other end of the table.

That blocking of their sight-line is rude.

  • She covered most of the senses of “fair”. However, I do not believe she ever worked at a fair.

I agree. “Good manners” are often arbitrary rules applied to make those who do not know them look foolish. However, many of them have (or had) a practical reason, such as the one I suggest above.

That practical reason is not always obvious. For example, in “good society” it was the practice for men to remain behind at the table after a meal, while the women withdrew together. This was not as sexist as it appears

The intention was to allow the women some privacy to go to the toilet (the bathroom, or whatever euphemism you’re having yourself). The men crossed their legs or used a bottle under the table if they were really dying to go. Then, after a decent interval, they followed.

Are you allowed to put your elbow on the table when you are sporting a full arm cast? Bad manners or not, I sure did!

I was always told that an elbow on the table was more likely to knock over the gravy boat and water glasses. The line-of-sight thing seems more plausible to me.

To all rules, there must be exceptions.

And that’s also a rule, of course . . .

Reminds me of George Carlin talking about rules his parents had.

No sticking your head out of a moving train? God damn Dad: good rule!

No singing at the table? Why the fuck is that a rule? Who the hell cares if you sing at the table?

(Or something like that at least.)

A great question. Dad was always on me about my elbows on the table. I never understood why it was a problem.

If you’re big enough, you can rock the table. Not a pleasant experience.

It’s an entirely arbitrary rule. In France, for example, it’s good manners to put your elbows on the table.

While it is often a mistake to assume that the particulars of etiquette must have a practical purpose, it is true that etiquette itself does have practical benefits, particularly in cementing social bonds and sense of community.

I think it’s more a class thing, albeit a rule that does have some practical effects (mentioned already.)

Resting your elbows on the table puts you in the perfect position to “shovel” your food quickly. Good if you’re a laborer, very hungry and in a rush to finish the meal and get back to work. So it came to be viewed as low class.

A moneyed gentleman (or gentlewoman) wouldn’t rush through dinner, since they didn’t have anywhere pressing to be. Dinner was for socializing, for gaining or cementing one’s place in Society, for demonstrating one’s refinement and social graces to attract a suitor, or for doing business deals over. Dinners might take hours, and anyone looking like they were rushing looked like they had somewhere else to be that was more pressing than enjoying the company.

So the appearance of leaning forward, shoveling food in your mouth indicates lower breeding or socioeconomic class - at least for people my grandparents’ age and older.

Or if yur full arm cast is heavy enough…