The phrase "know your place" can be used in a variety of ways. In the past it might be used as a means of indicating that children should show more respect for someone in authority, such as a grandparent or a teacher. A boss might say something similar to an employee who has overstepped his or her bounds. The saying has also been used to explain to someone that he or she should try harder to not impose on a host, or to not overstay his or her welcome. While such uses tend to carry with them a bit of reprimand, this idiom is also sometimes used in harsher ways or ways that can be offensive.
To understand the meaning of idioms, such as know your place, it is helpful to examine their sources or their early meanings. In the past, a rule of thumb was that children were to be seen and not heard or were not to speak unless spoken to. Strict rules of this sort were implemented to ensure that children showed respect. Under such harsh rules, telling children to know their place would not be unusual.
In modern societies, this phrase is sometimes used in a joking manner toward the female gender, such as: “Know your place, woman.” An alternative is “you know your place; it’s in the kitchen.” These types of smart-alecky comments reference the days when men actually treated women as if they were property. While this outlook may still be prevalent, and even accepted in some cultures, other cultures demand that women be treated with greater respect.
If told to know your place, it may be a way of stating that you should defer to another person. For instance, you might let an older person enter the doorway before you do. You might give up your seat to someone who is elderly, pregnant, or disabled. Basically, it means putting someone else ahead of yourself or not thinking more highly of yourself than you do of other people.
The phrase "know your place" may also refer to one’s station in life. “Don’t get fancy ideas; remember your place.” While many uses of this phrase feel rather negative, there are also positive aspects. Finding your place in the world, knowing your place, knowing who you are, all indicate having a sense of where you fit and what you contribute to the world around you. So, even if many uses of the term do have negative connotations, it is important to remember that knowing your place can also be a good thing.