Certain table manners go without saying: chewing with your mouth closed protects others at the table from seeing your half-chewed food; a napkin on your lap protects your pants from crumbs. But, why is eating dinner with your elbows on the table, which both feels & seems right, so frowned upon?
Well, it originally served as a way of proving you were not a threat to other diners. Table manners came about as a means of preventing people from leaving their terrestrial bubble to start a fight. Elbows on the table, in theory, disrupted the border created the utensils; people saw it as a lack of restraint. Others around the table would get jittery when someone started showing bad manners, since it meant that the taboo wasn’t working, and that the ill-mannered person was unpredictable, a wildcard.
It’s certainly not a new rule. In the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, one is supposed to feel just as ashamed of “stretching your elbow at dinner” as he/she would “breaking an oath or a covenant”. More recently, however, the no-elbows rule has become less about preventing brawls & more about avoiding other dinner disasters. By keeping your elbows off the table, you’re helping to ensure that you don’t put your elbow in the soup or gravy (or anything else).
Keeping your elbows off the table also prevents you from exhibiting bad posture which, historically, indicated an uncivilized upbringing. These days, a slight slouch at dinner may not get you labeled as a caveman/cavewoman, but leaning on your elbows might make it difficult for the folks on either side of you to have a conversation.
With that said, though, even those with better-than-average table manners have been known to break the rules. As a matter of fact, in a 1937 interview, famed ettiquette expert Emily Post even confessed to gracing a tabletop with her elbows from time to time. When questioned about it, she said: “It really makes no difference.”
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