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Bill's Values

Elbows on or off the Table?

Bill Radke

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Tonight, my family will observe our Saturday night tradition of sitting down and eating a homemade pizza. My one-year-old daughter won't notice where my elbows are. But my wonderful wife Sara will and she would prefer that I get in the habit of keeping my elbows off the table, since that's the etiquette we'll eventually teach our child.

I feel differently. Maybe it's because I come from a large family and my parents didn't have time to explain to me that, while slurping is perfectly acceptable in China, my hosts and I might feel more comfortable if I practiced the American style of silent dining. Instead, I got barked at from across the table.

So maybe I'm nursing some old sensitivities here, but I think it's more than that. Etiquette is something we pitch to our kids as being a matter of grace and consideration for others. I think this is true sometimes. But more often, I think etiquette is about conforming and seeking the approval of others. And I don't think it's worth the cost.

I'm doing a monthly series on family values. My daughter turns 13 months old this week, so these questions are still in her future, but they're important to me now -- being a parent has me thinking hard about which family values are, and aren't, worth passing on.

In a moment, I'll seek advice from someone who's written about the history of manners. But first, I talked about the value of etiquette with my wife, her father Max, and his wife Sharon. Sharon told me she grew up with "elbows on the table" and still does it. Max said it's not something he notices much but he didn't think he did it.

Sharon quietly corrected him: "Yes, you do."

They all agreed that the don't-slurp-your-food rule is a good one, even though not all cultures observe it.

I told them I'd been reading about where etiquette rules come from. Some people think we don't put elbows on the table because, while most animals don't have elbows, our close cousins the apes do. We don't like to think we're apes.

My wife Sara acknowledged that. "A lot of human existence is denying our animal nature. But I want to teach our kids what the social expectations are so they can go into the world prepared." (Max offered that wearing pants should be enough to distinguish us from the monkeys.)

Then I spoke with author Mark Caldwell, who wrote a book called "A Short History of Rudeness," about the evolution of manners. He told me my family conversation was a classic manners discussion. Caldwell says concerns about the decline of politeness have a lot to do with democracy and class mobility.

Hundreds of years ago, the gentry and the peasants didn't do a lot of mixing. But in modern, egalitarian America social groups intermingle. We combine high and low culture. We travel and meet folks who weren't raised like we were. All of this has led to clashes among people who have different ideas of politeness. Caldwell says these clashes seem jarring, and the so-called decline of civility gets a lot of media attention, but it's really not an emerging crisis. People have been wringing their hands about the state of manners since the Middle Ages and the hand-wringing continues today.

"Roughly every two or three years a poll is done asking Americans whether manners are deteriorating," said Caldwell. "And the answer is always yes, and it's never yes by less than 85 percent of the people responding. If that were true, if the perception were echoed in fact, then we'd all be attacking each other with our knives and forks. We wouldn't still be eating with them, we'd be using them to gouge each other's eyes out. But the evidence is that manners always somehow find a level. The problem is, it's always a different level. It's always dynamic. Something that was regarded as rude a few years ago -- the use of language is a classic example of that -- if you simply look at broadcast commercial television over a period of 15 years, language that would've brought the nation to a halt in 1965 is on every TV sitcom every night and nobody blinks an eye at it."

So, how do we react to these sliding standards? Some people say we should tighten our grip; put more emphasis on etiquette, so that we all speak a common language of politeness.

Caldwell associates this approach with the French. "A staple of French culture is that the children are taught very early how to behave around adults so you constantly see children at French restaurants and by the standards of Americans, they're very well behaved. And I've always had this fantasy in my mind that this is simply because they were acculturated. They were taken out to restaurants and they were accommodated. They were not instantly expected to adhere to adult standards. It's perfectly all right to color in your coloring book, for example. But then, I talked to a woman who wrote a book on French manners and she said, 'No that's not how they do it. They do it by being mean to the kids. They do it by beating them.' Whether that's true or not, I don't really know, and it's a generalization. But still, a perennial debate in the intellectual history of children is: 'What are they, in and of themselves? Are they nobly born human beings with completely social instincts or are that little savages?'"

I told Caldwell that after reading his book, I'd concluded I was in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau camp. He said, "Yes, Rousseau is considered the forefather of the idea that children are born noble and that any bad behavior is a result of them being corrupted by the world they're born into. But there's a completely opposite school of thought, which is that they are born untamed and they need to be instructed in the arts of civilization. And I think there's plenty of evidence for both, I don't think anybody has ever figured out whether it's both, one or neither."

So, what do I think is the nature of children? I ask myself this a lot, being a new parent. I don't think Jean-Jacques Rousseau was recommending that we indulge our children. In fact, he abandoned his own children, saying he would have been a lousy father and they were better off at the orphanage.

But he also wrote about the difference between self-love and self-consciousness. Healthy self-love comes to us naturally, while self-consciousness is a social evil that depends on comparing ourselves with others. Self-consciousness, he wrote, breeds contempt, hostility and frivolous competition. Now that's etiquette the way I remember it!

So, when my wife says she wants to teach our daughter table manners so she'll feel comfortable and confident in social settings, I know what she means -- I'm all for comfort and confidence. But rather than talk to my kid about etiquette, I plan to talk to her about mindfulness -- noticing how the people around her feel -- and I'm hoping she can take it from there. If not, don't worry -- I promise I'll keep her out of restaurants!

  • Music Bridge:
    Do Deep-Sea Fish Dream of Electric Moles
    Artist: Michio Kurihara
    CD: Sunset Notes (Ba Da Bing)
More stories from our Bill's Values series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Furious Ramen

    From TN, 10/12/2011

    In Europe, we have something that is called, I suppose, being "classy". It has nothing to do with being rich, but with being educated and raised in a city (as opposed on a farm). My mother considers being literate and being able to properly use eating utensils pretty much the same thing. Anyway, nobody ever beat me to get me to adopt proper table manners, it came naturally. Now I want you to consider the following stories:

    My cousin, who studied in the US at the time, brought his friend home, and he was invited to a family dinner. The poor dude wasn't sure in which order to use the utensils or how to hold a fork and knife. I felt bad for him especially when my aunts started loudly criticising him because of his table manners. Nobody cares about my aunts, but imagine if it was an important formal dinner....

    When I was 18, I came to the US as an exchange student, ended up in a really small town, went to get pizza with some kids from my school. Naturally, I asked for a fork and knife. They looked at me funny, some chuckled... so I figured, f* it, sure, I can use all 5 of my fingers on both hands too.

    And so today, if I am dining with my bosses, I will use utensils, European style. If they care, they will notice, if they dont, I dont either. If I am watching football, I'll use both of my hands to eat wings. Point being, because of how I was raised, either one of these behaviors come naturally.

    So stop philosophizing and quoting Rousseau, and equip your kid with the skills necessary for a successful life. She might end up among judgmental people who care about this kind of stuff, and she might feel extremely uncomfortable and even ashamed. If you want to prove your points about your disagreements with social norms, then do that yourself, and let your kid decide what it wants to do when it gets old enough. Until then, I think it is your *obligation* to teach it basic manners.

    By Sandra Robertson


    Certainly elbows on or off the table has nothing to do with basic courtesy between fellow human beings. Why do you confuse the two?

    In Spain the American custom of keeping your left hand in your lap while eating is considered suspicious, since for centuries the left hand was used to wipe yourself after evacuating bowels or bladder.

    Suspicious, but not disrespectful or insulting.

    By Geri Woodruff

    From Dorchester, MA, 06/07/2008

    You must teach this child manners or at least a middle ground for acceptable table interaction in public and private. We have all had the experience of being at a restaurant cringing at the boorish behavior of children at "that other table!".

    I use to mentor two budding teenagers (12 &13) and would occasionally take them out to non-fast food restaurants to ensure that they would feel comfortable, like they belong and if they should ever have to interview over a meal or engage in conversation with business associates at dinner(which I have done), they do not do some embarrasing or career jeopardizing activity.

    Eating together should be an enjoyable experience, one shouldn't commit to practice insensitive and rude behavior. There are people I have eliminated from sharing a meal with as they've displayed their only acceptable companion has been or should be a tv.

    My mother neither graduated high school or college, but she gave me good table manners. No elbows, no talking with mouth full of food.

    By Sandy Fackler

    From Bishop, CA, 03/07/2008

    Oh, please don't make your daughter wait until she's at someone else's table and has to watch them to see how they do. Give her the necessary tools for the very best manners and let her find the level that fits in every situation. My grandmother, who lived with us, used to say... what you're doing is fine at home but remember, when you're out in society [this behavior] is required. Thus I was taught gently both American and European holding of silverware, napkin placement, elbows in formal and informal situations. PS If you were paying attention to the slant of your soup bowl and the direction in which you gather soup on your spoon (away from yourself) you would not have time to slurp. (just kidding)

    By Barbara Liang

    From Appleton, WI, 03/03/2008

    I'm really enjoying Bill's weekly thoughts and reflections on family values. It brings a personal touch to the program and invite the listeners to also engage in similar discussions with our families.

    By Max Bowen

    From Neenah, WI, 03/02/2008

    Rousseau didn’t need to wear pants to distinguish himself from monkeys. Monkeys raise their offspring. Rousseau didn’t raise his, sending them to an orphanage instead.

    Instead of admitting that he was weak or narcissistic, Rousseau rationalized his abandonment of his children by claiming they were better off escaping his parenting. He then elevated this excuse to a grand scale, claiming that children are born pure and noble, and efforts to civilize them (i.e., parent them) made things worse. His grand assertion about the nature of children and civilization seems self-serving. He may have convinced himself he was doing his children a favor. I doubt that his children believed that.

    Thanks for bringing out important information about Rousseau that is not widely known. Maybe a follow-up program about manners in monkeys?

    By Stuart Merrill

    From Minneapolis, MN, 03/01/2008

    Regarding Bill Radke's report on manners; I think he missed a very important point. There is no baseline for "good manners." What is polite in one culture may be highly rude in another. The best example that comes to mind is "elbows on the table." While in Anglo cultures this considered very rude, in Germany it's perfectly fine, but whatever you do don't let either of your hands go below the dining table in Germany that would be considered extremely rude.

    By Renee Benjamin

    From Florissant, MO, 03/01/2008

    The reason that it is impolite to put your elbows on the table is that tables were originally just flat pieces of word placed on top of items to hold them up. If you put your elbows on the table it was likely that you would over balance the flat surface causing it to fall over and placing everyone's meals on the floor. Keeping your elbows off the table was thus a very considerate thing to do.

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