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Social Grace 

Are you unsure how to behave? Social Grace answers all your toughest etiquette questions

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000
Dear Social Grace,
You recently touched on the propriety of resting your arms and hands on the table during a meal (June 7). What is the final word on this habit? The writer of the letter spoke of hands in laps as a bad, clumsy thing, and you said that "in many situations it is inappropriate" to put your arms/elbows on the table. What situations? I'm never sure what to do with the hand that's not busy shoveling food into my mouth. When I was a kid, my parents taught a strict "no elbows on the table" standard, but is that old-fashioned manners now?

Dear Handy,
I'm not usually one to argue with old-fashioned parents (I have two of my own), but a strict "no elbows at all" rule seems to me rather severe and unnecessary. Let's take a moment and review a basic table-manners principle. To quote me, "Well-mannered diners endeavor not to disgust, annoy, startle, or amaze other diners, restaurant staff, and passers-by." I'll add that when eating with others, it's a nice idea not to appear bored by or uninterested in the company (or the food).

Resting elbows on the table is a perfectly natural thing to do when one is engaged in animated conversation -- between courses, say. Many people need full use of their arms to speak. Elbows on the table become a problem when they are used in conjunction with hands to hold up drooping, bored-looking heads. (And I'm sure your old-fashioned parents taught you to sit up straight at the table, anyway.)

When using hands and arms to eat, elbows on the table become not only unattractive but also a little impractical. If you're eating with one hand and not using the other, you may rest that hand (with the bottom of your wrist at table's edge if that's comfortable) on the table, or you can rest it in your lap -- whatever works for you. Neither is impolite. Many people prefer to keep hands off the table because, left to their own devices, hands have a tendency to fiddle with silverware, food, or tablecloths -- and fidgeting hands signal impatience to others (not to mention, they just don't look very agreeable). This fact might be behind the "hands off table" dicta in many of our pasts.

I'll add in closing one more reason to keep your elbows off the table: that position makes your hair much more accessible, and playing with or touching hair at the table is, well, disgusting to many people -- and widely accepted as an offensive behavior. If you have a tendency to play absentmindedly with your hair, you might consider keeping your hands out of the danger zone while dining.

Dear Social Grace,
I have been invited to a party thrown by friends. I meet up with another friend and think that he needs some social exposure. Should I ask the host/hostess if I may bring a friend? Do I bring it up to the potentially invited person? Should I discuss it with him/her before I ask the host/hostess?
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Dear Guess Who,
If the party is an intimate special occasion or a formal event, it might be inappropriate to ask to invite an extra guest. The same goes for dinner parties -- I don't really like to ask a host to stuff another game hen or drag an extra chair in off the patio, especially at the last minute. Depending on the occasion and the host, however, you might ask when the invitation is made, or you could "hide" the request when RSVPing: "I'd love to come to dinner, but my cousin Jackie is visiting that weekend -- so I'm not sure . . ." leaving it up to your host. If you're going to a casual, cocktail-type party or a picnic, say, I think asking to bring your friend would be fine. When you ask, gracefully give the hostess a chance to say no without seeming inhospitable -- her guest list may have been painstakingly put together. You should discuss this invitation with your host before extending it to your friend.

Dear Social Grace,
I'm hoping you might help me with a dilemma I encountered during a recent shopping experience. I had a long airport layover and decided to pass the time in one of those overpriced concourse shops. Upon trying on what appeared to be a unisex raincoat (I am a man), I heard a squeal from inside the shop and looked up, only to hear the reverberating exclamation, "Oh my God! That's a WOMAN'S jacket!" from the apparent love child of Alanis Morisette and Gidget.

Checking the impulse to counter with, "And THAT'S a bad home perm! " I simply shrugged my shoulders and replaced it on the rack. After browsing a short while more, I considered taking the salesgirl aside and instructing her in proper customer-service etiquette, but she had gone on break. Social, what is the proper response to poor treatment in this or any other situation in which one is the party paying?
Perplexed in Pittsburgh International

Dear Perplexed,
As Grandmother Grace might say, trying to teach manners to a clueless sales clerk is like trying to teach the fox trot to a pig -- it wastes your time, and it only annoys the pig. And instructing this woman in proper etiquette is neither your responsibility nor your place. Aside from the fact that such instruction almost always falls on deaf ears, there's almost no way to tell a stranger they've been rude without being rude yourself.

What is your recourse in this situation? Find a supervisor or a manager, and explain politely why you will not be buying anything at Runway Fashions. Write a letter. Make a phone call. If it's a national chain, you can probably even send an e-mail. You might actually locate someone who cares (or who pretends to care) about the behavior of sales clerks. You'll feel better, and the problem might somehow be addressed.

Your handling of this salesperson was right on. That instinct that told you to refrain from making personal comments was a good one. A cool nod and a pained grin might be just the thing in a situation such as this, but I've found that many people magically become polite when you treat them as if they already are. If I had been in your place, I might have smiled prettily and said, "And isn't it just lovely? Do you have it in blue?"

This quote, sent in by a reader, is illustrative: "The test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones." -- Solomon Ibn Gabirol

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