Gentleman Scholar

Joint Action

Is putting your elbows on the table really so bad?

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Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

The most clichéd etiquette rule imparted to children is “Don’t put your elbows on the table.” I am an adult, and I am in the habit of unconsciously putting my elbows on the table while dining at restaurants. Is this really bad? Do I need to train myself to stop?

Thank you for your question. May I warm up to it by stating my support for some other rules of civilized dining? It is never acceptable to pass the salt without also passing the pepper. It is always correct to treat roasted asparagus as a finger food. It is generally desirable to slip off one’s shoe when initiating a game of footsie.

Unless you have good reason to guard your plate with the ferocity of a street urchin fearful that a brute will swipe his meager ration of gruel, it is wholly inappropriate to eat with your elbows on the table. The law against it is at least two millennia old, I think, not knowing how else to interpret the line in the Wisdom of Sirach listing “leaning with thine elbow at meat” as a thing to be ashamed of—a crime in the same category as theft, iniquity, unjust dealing, and “whoredom before father and mother.” Yes, eating with your elbows on the table is so aesthetically offensive (how crude you look!) and so socially disruptive (how about you give people some space?) as to achieve a dimension of immorality. On this point, the guidebooks of Victorian England concur with the teachings of the ancients: “All such acts as leaning over on one side in your chair, placing your elbows on the table, or on the back of your neighbor’s chair, gaping, twisting about restlessly in your seat, are to be avoided as heresies of the infidel stamp.”

Folk wisdom has flourished such that there exist several variations on a chant sleep-away campers use to shame the inappropriate humerus of an ill-mannered peer. My favorite rhymes “elbow off the table” with “not a horse’s stable” before commanding the violator to run a lap around the mess hall, but the one with the couplet that goes, “We’ve seen you do it once / And you really are a dunce,” is also worthy. Let’s all choose a version to memorize and improve upon, yes? It is our misfortune to live in an age that has perverted the concept of shame. Recent examples of this nonsense are found in online articles titled “5 Mom-Shaming Trends That Need to Stop Now” and “Stop Slut-Shaming Kim Kardashian.” But shame is useful! It may yet save us from thoroughly disgracing our ancestors and degrading our communities. We must stop this rampant shame-shaming, and making children who put their elbows on the table when eating feel bad about their behavior seems a fine place to start. 

That said, if you’re an adult sitting at the table with only your hungry anticipation, or your post-prandial satiety, or your drink—if you’re just sitting there between courses or whatever—then go ahead and put your elbows on the tabletop, sure, that’s cool. Indeed, this is often the most natural posture, and Emily Post herself recommended it to people straining to be heard in loud restaurants: “leaning forward, a woman’s figure makes a more graceful outline supported on her elbows than doubled forward over her hands in her lap as though in pain!” Lean in, ladies and gentlemen.

My wife and I just had our first child, a beautiful daughter. Now back at work, I have a committee that I participate in which convenes semi-annually, and requires an overnight trip when my daughter would be 5 weeks old. It would be good for me to attend, but it’s not a core job duty. I also don’t want to leave my wife alone with the baby for too long. Is there any sort of protocol on when it is normal/acceptable to travel as a new father? Is it rude of me to decline the invitation on the basis of our newborn?

Mazel tov! Thanks for your question.

Assuming that the mother is not depressed and the child not manic, I say take the trip, mostly because this work obligation offers a chance to get some rest, and all involved will benefit if you are able to savor eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Or even four of them.

(Note: If your daughter were 5 months old when this occasion to escape her adorable little clutches came around, I would rule out the foregoing justification. By then, she’ll have seriously damaged your relationship with unconsciousness. Many first-time fathers know the feeling: Away from the wife and kid, they hatch a plan to get decadent and sleep until 7. Then they discover that their reset body clocks won’t have it, and there they are, awake in the dark and lonely. Get out while the getting is good.)

Of course, in undertaking this overnight abandonment, you are spending precious child-care capital. You’re going to owe your wife one. If this debt poses no problems, fine, but ask yourself: Would you rather save some credits for a fishing weekend with the boys or for bailing on a weekend visit to the in-laws?

P.S. Your daughter is too young to appreciate this now, but when this meeting comes around again in six or 12 or 18 months, remember that jars of condiments left over from room-service calls make excellent additions to the shelves of the toy kitchen that you and wife are destined to spend 11 man-hours assembling.