As a child, you were likely lectured to about the importance of keeping your elbows off the dinner table. Back then, you probably had some questions about the validity of the rule—and today, perhaps, you still don't know the answers. Like many long-standing etiquette traditions, the "no elbows on the table" rule has its roots in practical origin. "Not everyone is perfectly neat, so by keeping your elbows off the table, you are also making sure you do not put your elbow in a drip of salad dressing or soup or gravy and [damaging] your clothing," explains Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "Second, if you have dinner guests on either side, putting your elbows on the table prohibits those guests from chatting or making eye contact."
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Another reason? Back then, keeping your elbows off the table was a way to prevent slouching (a flagrant dining mistake, especially in aristocratic homes!). "This great focus on rigid posture while seated was preached in European and American dining and [was] a sign of a refined upbringing," explains Thomas P. Farley, etiquette expert and founder of Mister Manners. "Though 20th-century youngsters had the concept of 'no elbows on the table' ingrained into their minds as firmly as the alphabet, etiquette experts had already begun to ease up on this rule to accommodate a more contemporary approach to table etiquette." Naturally, etiquette as a whole has changed over the last century; today, in many situations across the country and the world, it's actually encouraged to plant your elbows firmly on the table. There are many reasons for this, explains Maryanne Parker, etiquette expert and founder of Manor of Manners. "Leaning towards somebody during conversation is actually more appropriate in terms of social skills, compared to not having elbows on the table and appearing distant," she says. "We can agree not to have our elbows on the table while eating and in general when the food is served, but if we don't have any food in front of us and we would like to have a pleasant conversation, we can allow ourselves to have elbows on the table."
Lisa Grotts, San Francisco-based etiquette expert agrees that "elbows off the table" is a rule of the past. "Many etiquette rules are arbitrary, and this is one of them," she says—but she notes that context really does matter. "The goal for good manners is to be polite to others, so if you've learned not to prop your elbows on the table, it won't hurt to keep that rule in place," she says, especially when you're around a parent who enforced the mantra when you were young. Ahead, how to know when the rule does and does not apply—a common dilemma in this 21st-century world.
If there's food on the table, keep your elbows off.
"From both a practical, considerate standpoint, if there are plates present—particularly plates containing food— real estate goes to the tableware and not to your elbows," says Farley. "This also ensures you won't accidentally place an elbow in the food—whether your own or that of others."
Deep in conversation? The rule doesn't apply.
As you converse with your table neighbors before or after the meal—after the food has been cleared—propping your elbows up is perfectly acceptable. But if you are going to do so, try to maintain some form of posture. This involves not resting your head in your hands, notes Farley. "Clasp one's hands, gently place them under the chin, anchor them with upright arms, and place elbows ten or fewer inches apart," he says. "This posture conveys enchantment and allure when listening."
Pay attention to your body language.
"Our body language speaks volumes and leaves a lasting impression," says Grotts, noting that keeping your elbows off the table often does, in fact, read better while eating at dinner parties. "When you lean forward while dining, it gives the appearance of being overly indulgent; when your elbows are off the table, you sit up straighter—and good posture is key to positive body language."