Have you ever wondered about all of the silly old-fashioned rules telling us how we should behave ourselves in social situations? You know the ones like, “Don’t wear white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day.” My mother was from Alabama, and I actually grew up with lots of these rules on how to do things the ‘right way’.
These rules of behavior are called etiquette, and etiquette has often been called the ‘oil of civility’. It is behavior that society always called polite. Today, we have a more relaxed way of living, but there are always a few of these old rules hanging around.
Good manners probably started when a puny caveman stepped out of the way of a stronger caveman. Yes, many of the gestures we think of as mannerly probably started as acts of submission. The kiss on the hand of a lord or gentleman more than likely started with a punished man who “thanked” his punisher for correcting his uncivilized ways.
The handshake is traced back to a time when most men carried weapons. The weapon hand was usually the right hand, and to shake hands, it had to be empty.
Kneeling, bowing, curtsying, before a superior- — all of these were gestures of submission. Tipping a hat as a greeting can be traced to knights in full armor raising their visors to show that they meant no harm.
Over the centuries, many books on etiquette were written, especially in the 19th century and in countries with social upheaval as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, these etiquette books were the handbooks for those wishing to show “good breeding” in a new country.
Every social situation had its own special rules. Ladies weren’t supposed to put on their gloves when visitors were present. Knives could not be used to take food to the mouth under any circumstance. It was considered vulgar.
Bread could not be cut less than 1 ½ inches thick. Thin bread was considered to be low class. And, every man was encouraged to have at least two songs to sing whenever needed. A man, meeting a woman on the street, had to wait for her to acknowledge him first. In Europe the opposite was the case.
Calling cards were used often in polite society and had a complex set of rules. There was an exchange of calling cards on visits, and etiquette books had whole chapters on the right way to exchange these cards. Sometimes this exchange of cards was the whole reason for the visit. The cards were folded differently if for the lady or if for the man of the house.
Ann White wrote the “Twentieth Century Etiquette” in 1900. She stated that etiquette throws a protection around the well-bred while keeping the ill-bred at a distance. Her set of rules for behavior covered a great many subjects such as speaking calmly into the new telephone instead of shouting……….
Twenty years later, Emily Post wrote “Etiquette the Blue Book of Social Usage”. It became an instant best seller and included many recommendations dealing with the great changes taking place in the United States after WWI. A few of the things she included in the ‘Blue Book’ were behaviors considered to be bad at the dinner table: 1. Tipping chair back, 2. Mouth too full, 3. Feeding dog, 4. Knife wrong, 5. Arguing, 6. Lounging, 7. Children on table, 8. Drinking from saucer, 9. Shirt sleeves at the table, 10. Finger in mouth, 11. Scratching.
It has been said that Emily Post’s death in 1960 marked the end of polite society’s influence on American behavior.
We look around us and often we see that ‘shock’ behavior has become the norm. More than likely formal behavior may never regain its importance here in America.
But, I still feel funny wearing white shoes before Easter… So there you have it… A bit about silly old-fashioned rules of etiquette. God bless you.