The inexplicit nature of norms & why we sit down to eat (#157)

“Why do we sit down and eat?” that was the question that (completely randomly) popped up in my head and I asked my 9 year old sister what she thought about it.

That’s a foolish question at first glance, isn’t it? And one would probably nudge that question away due to it’s apparent silly nature.

Unless, what if it isn’t and you shouldn’t nudge answering it away?

In some cultures, they sit on the floor while in others they sit on chairs around a table. But in almost all places, the norm is to sit down (in whatever form) and eat. Not standing up, not lying down. People sit down to eat.

It’s important to note I don’t have anything against that. I’m just curious why we all do so when in theory we can (and sometimes do—though it isn’t the norm) eat standing up or lying down or in another unconventional posture.

Now because sitting down to eat is something that we all instinctually do and everyone in our family and society and almost everyone in the world perhaps just does because- well… because everyone else in the tribe just does the same thing; when someone asks “why we only sit down and eat” people would respond: “because it’s good to sit down and eat” or “because you shouldn’t eat while lying down or standing up”. When you ask why it’s good sitting down and why you shouldn’t eat standing up or lying down, they’ll answer, “well, because it just is and we all do that”.

That’s obviously far from any explanation for why we sit down to eat.

Some intellectuals may reason that eating while lying down slows digestion and isn’t good for the heart too so it isn’t good to lie down and eat. Okay, but eating lying down not being “good” isn’t a fair explanation for why we eat siting down. There’s so many things people do that are not good for them and they know so. Then what about standing up? Again some may rebut saying, well it’s not convenient eating standing up. But isn’t sitting down inconvenient also? Isn’t it so inefficient (and hard) laying the table each night, then using a fork with your left hand? (just me? okay)

Most people just won’t seem to have a good explanation for why in almost all, if not all societies today we follow this norm of sitting down and chewing our food. But there’s still this knowledge that our cultures have ingrained inside of them and that is also something we know about—that’s what guides us to follow these norms of sitting on the table. Rather that’s why these norms exist in the first place. But due to their inexplicit nature, we find it hard to explain why we do such a thing. “We just do”.

It was a popular social practice for upper-class Romans during the Roman Empire to eat lying down. There would be three couch-like things on which (usually) 9 Romans would dine together on. They would lie on their bellies resting on the elbow to raise their necks a little bit*.

Elite Romans eating lying down (source)

Anyway, that’s apart from the point.

The point is that some norms we just accept without there being a good explanation behind them. In our minds we’d say there is an explanation we know and that’s why we do it. But we don’t know it. More often than not it is an idea we adopt because our tribe follows it. There must exist an explanation for why we eat sitting down. But it’s hard for us to know what that is.

We want to try and be making the inexplicit explicit to better understand our choices that are guided by the knowledge contained in the ideas in our minds.


* Due to my procrastinating curiosity, I found an article which explains a hypothesis or tells a fact—I’m not quite sure—about Why Were Romans Laying Down Whilst Eating. They wanted “to be different and special” apparently. History is interesting.

This post contains ideas I learned from (Chapter 15 specifically of) The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch: a book I recommend to everyone.

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