Where do “table manners” come from?

We’ve all been there when we were little nippers.

The family’s having a get together, Aunty Judy has already had five glasses of wine and is telling everyone about her holiday romance in The Maldives. Meanwhile, under the table that bothersome little cousin is biting everyone’s knees whilst you’re trying to tuck into your dinner.

But while you’re scooping a scrumptious spoonful of shepherd’s pie into your mouth, you hear across the room… “Joe! Get your elbows off the table – don’t you know that’s horrendously rude?!

So why do we have these strange customs that are considered “bad manners” when eating at the table? Where on earth did they come from? What in the heck did your amicable, peace-loving elbow joints do to anyone?!

Some things that are considered bad table manners are understandably a little rotten, such as eating loudly and talking with your mouth full. It’s not appetising seeing or hearing someone’s half masticated food while you’re trying to enjoy yours.

Elbows, though. When it comes to dining etiquette, elbows have picked the short straw. But what is the reasoning behind keeping those knobbly menaces off the table? 

Elbows away for a balanced diet

My careful research has discovered that the saying “set the table” comes from the middle ages, when peasants used to quite literally “set the table” for dinner each night by constructing it out of a plank of wood resting across two trestles. This precariously placed table could fall with the slightest encouragement, so an elbow or two on the table could spell disaster for those coveted vegetables.

This association between tabled elbows and showing a lack of respect for your meal was subsequently passed down to later generations. Soon enough, not putting your elbows on the table was seen being able to properly appreciate your food. It went hand in hand with finishing a meal slowly and keeping a straight back when eating and was seen as exuding class.

A chopstick memorial

Elbows-off is a tradition that has been passed down through mostly Western cultures, but there are plenty of others around the globe. Let’s take one from China, for example.

Whilst chowing down on some delicious Laziji (chicken and chili) and rice when I was in Suzhou a couple of years ago, I had stopped eating for just a moment to talk to a friend. I prudently placed my chopsticks inside the rice bowl so they were standing upright, protruding out of my bowl.

To the horror of my fellow diners, who sat in a malevolent daze staring at my bowl. Embarrassed and confused, I swiftly pulled the chopsticks out of the bowl and placed them to the side, upon which everyone quickly turned around to get back to their food.

Out of sheer curiosity as to how I’d insulted and offended so many people in quick succession, I asked my local friend why this had caused so much of a fuss. It turns out that it is horrendously rude to place chopsticks into rice and leave them like so.

The reason: a bowl of rice with incense sticking out of it is offered as a ceremonial meal to the deceased. Chopsticks left in this manner are seen to reflect this – not something you want to be thinking of when you’re eating!

A parp of approval

Finally let’s go to the North of Canada, where we might perhaps share a meal with the Inuit people at some time or another. It is said that in some circles of Inuit people, after finishing a meal of caribou, whale, or perhaps a bit of walrus it’s polite to let out a large, healthy guff.

After finishing a hearty meal with your partner’s family, this would perhaps be frowned upon. However, in this particular tribe, this would supposedly show that you have appreciated your meal – and it would please the host.

So, remember if you ever find yourself in China – try not to leave your chopsticks poking out of your bowl of rice like two blasphemous little oiks. If visiting the Inuit tribe, remember to let your bowels do the talking.

Oh, and when you’re at Gran’s, it’s imperative you KEEP THOSE ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE!


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