Caveman Posture

Dear Helena,

My grandmother considers herself to be a stickler for etiquette. Among other things, she always tells me not to put my elbows on the table. Is this a rule that should go the way of white gloves and finger bowls?—Chastised

Dear Chastised,

Granny is right. Keep your elbows out of sight—or you might find yourself inadvertently doing the following:

1. Appearing to spread germs. Pamela Holland, business-etiquette coach and coauthor of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move? (Brody Communications, 2001), says elbows on the table violate a hygiene taboo. “You don’t do it for the same reason you never put your purse on the table. Hygienically speaking, the table needs to stay as clean as possible. The more body parts on the table accompanying your food, the less hygienic it is.”

2. Looking like a Neanderthal. When you share a meal with someone, you’re supposed to divide your attention between their company and the food. If you’re hunkered down over your plate, you look too interested in your dinner. Holland says, “It seems rather primitive that your whole focus is on the food. You look like a caveman.”

3. Invading personal space. Some claim that the no-elbows rule developed in medieval times, when diners ate pressed so close together that if you put your elbows on the table, they’d probably end up in your neighbor’s dinner. Nowadays we have more room. But, especially at occasions where people don’t know each other well, putting elbows on the table can still make other diners feel cramped. Robert Shutt, an etiquette trainer who teaches seminars in savoir-faire to Ivy League undergrads, says, “Some people will think you don’t understand the importance of respecting other people’s personal space.”

But note that if you keep your elbows to yourself, it doesn’t mean you have to sit bolt upright. In fact, it’s OK to rest your forearms on the edge of the table. Shutt says, “Leaning forward demonstrates you’re interested in what the other person is saying.” Just don’t overdo it. His rule is, “If you’re supporting yourself on the table, imagine the table is removed. If you would fall, you’re too comfortable.”

There is one occasion when you can put your elbows on the table: If you’re on a date that’s going well, and you’re working up to holding your companion’s hand. Then it’s not invading the other person’s space, it’s flirting.

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