Is It OK to Put Your Elbows on the Dinner Table?

The short answer: sometimes. 

Some of our most vivid memories happen around the dinner table. And if you grew up in the South, it's likely that one of those memories involves your mom or grandma nagging you to take your elbows off the table.

Though etiquette rules are often based on longstanding traditions that may seem outdated in current times, there are several practical reasons to leave your elbows off the table. Amy Rainer, a children's etiquette teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, says she always focuses on the "why" behind etiquette rules in order to help students understand their importance. In the case of the "no elbows on the table" rule, it's all about being considerate of your fellow diners and maintaining good posture.

elbows on dinner table
Getty Images / Harold M. Lambert / Contributor

"Whether you realize it or not, when your elbows are on the table, you are probably spilling over into your neighbor's personal space," she told Southern Living. "I'm a children's manners teacher, and one of the things we strive for is positive body language. When we are tired or bored, we can often show this by slouching. Having our elbows on the table can aid in slouching and can even give kids a place to prop up their head in an exhausted way."

Diane Gottsman—national etiquette expert, author, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas—says keeping elbows clear of the table can also decrease the chance for mess.

"I personally am not a fan of elbows on the table because it is easy to spill or knock over a glass, and it simply appears unsightly—similar to looking anxious for the next course!" she told Southern Living.

So, is it ever OK to rest your elbows on the dinner table? Sometimes. Both experts agree there is a time and place for elbows on the dinner table, but it's never when there's food on the table.

Between courses, and before or after dinner is served, are all acceptable times to bring them up. Gottsman says when paired with a smile and nod, leaning forward with your elbows on the table can send a message to other diners that you are both engaged and listening.

Rainer agrees and adds that when it comes to manners, the overarching goal is to "present yourself in the best possible light and show consideration to others."

"The exact nuts and bolts of these things might change over time, and that's OK!" she said. "I like to tell my students that we can think of the 'rules of manners' being written in dry erase marker, not Sharpie. As long as your goal is kindness and consideration for others, it's OK to shift with the times."

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