Manners Show Status

A Post article, “The Reasons For Good Manners“, targeted at kids:

Take your elbows off the table.
Don’t talk with your mouth full.
Look people in the eye when you speak to them.
Write your thank-you notes.

You’ve probably heard all or most of those orders from your parents. … Good manners are a way to show others that you care about them. Manners also make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable in social situations. … “The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. … They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.” … Our distant ancestors developed behaviors to show others respect, fairness and kindness. …

Some manners are still used even though the original reason for them is largely gone. Have you ever wondered why you’re told to keep your elbows off the table? The rule dates from the Middle Ages, Forni said, when tables often were just a big board placed on a stump. Leaning on the table with your elbows could easily tip the table and make everyone lose his food! Today, it’s not good manners to text at the table, because it sends a message that you aren’t interested in the people around you.

This rationale for manners, “traffic lights of human interaction,” sure sounds good – who wants us smashing into each other willy-nilly?  But a moment’s reflection shows that explanation is bull.

If people ate with elbows on the table, there would be no physical crashes. Instead, what would go wrong is that others may think you don’t care about and aren’t interested in them. Why? Because they’ve been told to interpret your elbows that way.

So yes, no-elbows-shows-caring could be a self-consistent equilibrium.  Except, this is not the world we live in.  There really are plenty of people out there for whom table elbows say very little, relative to other ways of inferring care and interest.

Now the above can apply more to actions that high status folks do more, regarding people who are status conscious and who tend to strictly interpret status signals. Such especially and strictly status-conscious folk will put a high priority on your always acting high status, so that they can be “comfortable” gaining status via affiliation with you. If you ever act low status, they may feel you don’t appreciate the strength of their concern for status, and regardless of how you feel they may not want to associate with you.

In our world, people from higher status subcultures tend to keep their elbows off the table more than other folks. So telling you that “people” will be offended by your table elbows is really telling you to mainly care about especially and strictly status conscious folks. They are the “people” you should count. You shouldn’t count the other people, who care less whether you always act like high status subcultures, and look more at your overall behavior toward them and their associates.

Support for strict manners seems to have weakened with increasing wealth. This could be yet another way we revert to forager like ways with increasing wealth:

Signaling discourages norm violations best when, [as with farmers,] people that matter tend to hear about norm violations, but know little else about violators. At a smaller [forager-like] scale, one norm violation will add only a small amount to what observers know about that person, and at a larger [industry-style] scale observers will probably not have heard about the norm violation. … The fact that norms are enforced best at an intermediate social density helps explain why higher-density farmers had stronger social norms than lower-density foragers, and yet even higher-density modern folk have reverted back to a weaker forager-like level of norm enforcement. (more)

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  • Spot on. I recently visited Vienna’s Silberkammer, where the collection of the Habsburg court’s dinnerware is exhibited. The number of different kinds of plates, bowls and cutlery, many used only for specific dishes, was amazing.

    There were also some contemporary accounts of such dinners, and it was very clear that court table manners and assorted rituals back then were much more complex and difficult to learn than those even for today’s most formal occasions.

    Obviously, the only people who had the leisure (and the necessary utensils) to learn such complex skills with little practical use were the nobility, and it’s hard to imagine a reason for why they did it that does not come down to status displays and separating themselves from the commoners.

  • pconroy


    That’s funny, I was brought up with very strict table manners, but was never told:
    “Good manners are a way to show others that you care about them. ”

    “Manners maketh the gentleman”

    So there was never a pretense about caring for others, rather the message was if you are to succeed socially you need to learn to signal status appropriately.

    IMO that’s indicative of one of the differences between the Anglo-US and Anglo-Irish/British/Irish. The former always try and justify things with a call to Idealism, whereas the latter are much more Pragmatic.

    I also agree with:
    “Support for strict manners seems to have weakened with increasing wealth. ”
    As it may also be that growing up in a relatively poor country – Ireland – that one of the keys to success was status signalling?!

    You don’t need to go to Vienna to realize the lack of table manners in todays America. I’ve found that many Americans don’t recognize a butter knife, most don’t recognize a fish knife and even a soup spoon. A few years ago I was dining at the Palm – one of the more famous Steak Houses in New York – and was amazed that the waiter could not bring me a soup spoon. Not only that he got mad when I told him a desert spoon was not a soup spoon, and said that he had waited there 25 years and never had a problem with utensils. When I again described a soup spoon, he went into the kitchen and brought out a Table Spoon, and said that was the only other type of spoon they had.

    • In our current egalitarian climate, it’s necessary to frame concern for manners as concern for others, instead of oneself.

  • Daublin

    To the extent manners are about signalling, they more commonly seem about group membership than raw status. It’s often better to fit in than to act like a superior prick.

  • Psychohistorian

    Historically, rich people didn’t really have a lot to do, so some parts of etiquette were invented as ways to keep people amused and find ways to show off their wealth (and screen out poorer people).

    However, many manners do have practical origins – a point you reinforce with your example of keeping elbows off the table. I would imagine that the more direct of a connection manners have with maintaining some social order or keeping life pleasant (i.e. not interrupting people, chewing with one’s mouth closed, versus keeping elbows off table or using the right dinner fork), the less they decline at the high end of the class spectrum.

  • OhioStater

    Manners show a respect for order, and I believe order is not possible without hierarchy. Manners show signal respect for hierarchy, and hierarchy makes status possible. You can’t have the one without the other.

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  • Seems pretty obvious that if manners are displayed by high status people, they’ll be emulated by the status conscious. The interesting question is why should “manners” be correlated with status. I’d go with Veblen: conspicuous leisure.

  • Evan

    Support for strict manners seems to have weakened with increasing wealth. This could be yet another way we revert to forager like ways with increasing wealth:

    It hasn’t just weakened, in a lot of places being seen supporting strict manners will lower your social status. People will think you’re an obnoxious stick in the mud and get mad at you, as in pconroy’s waiter anecdote.

    I think you are right that this probably indicates a reversion to our more egalitarian forager ways, where status and dominance signaling was frowned on.

    • bbleeker

      No, if you follow strict manners, people will think you’re pleasant to be around. They’ll only think you’re an “obnoxious stick in the mud” when you go around insisting that others around you follow those manners. Just like people get annoyed when you correct their language, but no-one minds if you spell correctly, nor even if you prefer to hypercorrectly avoid splitting an infinitive; then they just find your text easy to read.

  • sabril

    Good manners are far. Duh.

  • I’m not sure I get this…

    Wealth leads to Forager type behaviours according to your thesis… And I agree that by all rights it should in the general case (although I think there are stronger forces blocking wealth from having this effect).. But then why were rich people in times past so concerned with status signalling? And why have richer people tended to be conservative leaning?

    This also seems relevant:

  • People who lean forward and put their elbows on the table take up more room at the table, which means less room for other people, including the common dishes.

    Good manners are conducive to less brawling.

  • Aris Katsaris

    I’ll draw the line to not talking with your mouth full. That’s just plain sense — it doesn’t force the other person to have to parse your barely-understandable words.

    Even in a very loose environment where nobody frowned upon other people making obscene jokes, etc, I remember that was the one rule that when violated I saw it pissing enough people off that when the person in question showed confusion at why other people were being annoyed at him, I just said “don’t talk with your mouth fall” — not in the tones of suggestion, but of command.

    And I don’t remember *ever* remarking on someone’s manners before then or since.

  • The traffic light analogy was interesting, since they may cause more problems than they create.

    Eric Crampton says that like most farm kids he learned to eat efficiently rather than good-mannered.

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  • Some of the manners are in fact ways to take high-status stance. Looking people in the eye, for example, is one of the strongest to signal status. The one who takes the lower status will have to glance away (quickly) as a way to submit. If you keep looking the other person in the eye, you’re challenging his status and will probably have to engage in some type of battle.