Sunday, October 19, 2014

Victorian Era Etiquette at Dinner Tables and Small Talk

A lady is entitled to special attention from her escort, but she should not monopolize his time. In other words, "Don't talk his ear off."
Long stories are to be avoided, and so is the habit of asking questions; but there is a subtle way of wishing, or, at least, of being willing to hear more that gives the inflection without being too interrogative; and if it be not expedient to tell all we know in response to its gentle insinuation, it does not compel an ungracious refusal or a chilling reticence. 
A lady is entitled to special attention from her escort, but she should not monopolize his time. Not merely the pairing but the grouping of guests is considered by an accomplished hostess, and a lady may exercise her conversational graces impartially to right and left and likewise across the table, provided its width and adornments do not interfere.; but neither in front of nor behind an intervening guest should anybody attempt to converse. When a word or sentence to one so separated suggests itself, the intervening person should be included in the conversation. In other words, the conversation becomes general to a lesser or greater extent, according as the subject under discussion may interest those present. 
Architecture may be frozen music to you in the most rigid sense, and you may be seated next to some one who draws out its harmonies in grand and classic shapes, and to whose latest triumphs the company may allude in brief but pleasing terms. You feel called upon to add something to the general tribute, but can think of nothing apt. Said a young girl who was thus placed, " I could not think of anything to say that would indicate an intelligent knowledge of the subject and I did not feel privileged to lead the conversation from the channel in which it had been directed, so I could only speak of a mite of a country house which always comes to mind because of the beautiful roses that grow all about it and seem intent upon surmounting its diminutive height. I scarcely know how it happened, but in a very short time he was telling me how artistically the rose works into decorative purposes, and from that passed to other things until I felt the subject to be more interesting than I ever supposed it could become to one who knows next to nothing about architecture, and who cannot become familiar with it." 
Such a frank avowal is not discreditable to one who has tact enough to make up for it, and tact quite often takes the place of many qualities commonly supposed to belong to the mental equipments of bright women. It made a good listener in the instance referred to, and it gave a good talker the opportunity to air his gifts agreeably.                 
It is not permissible to seem otherwise than happy and content.
Worries and all disquieting subjects should not be mentioned outside the circle they affect, and even though one may have but just emerged from a sea of them, it is not permissible to seem otherwise than happy and content. 
There must have been some unexplained condition attached to the circumstances which led to the question, "Is it proper to thank a servant for a service rendered," because well-bred people instinctively acknowledge the slightest service; but the question came to us as quoted and in that form we answer it. By all means thank a servant for replacing a dropped napkin, a knife or fork, for bringing you anything not at hand or for doing anything you may require; but do not assume the air or attitude of wishing the company to understand that you are punctilious in such matters. "Thank you," in a low tone, a gratified but not a familiar nod of approval or a gracious acceptance of what you desire is all that is needed. 
A lady is not often called upon to say " thank you " in such circumstances, because a well-bred man is always on the alert to direct attention to her wants. It is her prerogative to acknowledge both favor and service with a smile, which need not part the lips, but which expresses her appreciation as effectually and with less formality than even a simple, "thank you." . 
The habit of clipping words perhaps explains why "thanks," passes current for the finer and more gracious "thank you." The intimacy of "chums" permits the use of the abbreviated form, but the general adoption of such scant verbiage is as objectionable as verbosity; and if the question, "should one say 'thanks' to servants" were asked, the answer would be emphatically, no, unless you wish to suggest that all social difference between you and them is removed. 
In taking leave of your entertainers, be gracious but not effusive in expressing your pleasure. It is to your hostess that you will make acknowledgment in a few words. Just what they shall be, no pen can write and few people need be told; but they will give the impression that you have enjoyed your evening. Beware—this to the young —that your words do not savor of the fact that your enjoyment has been a surprise to yourself. To youth is also addressed this injunction: do not attempt to compliment your hostess upon her menage. 
A lady is not often called upon to say " thank you " in such circumstances, because a well-bred man is always on the alert to direct attention to her wants.
Verbally expressed compliments of any kind are rarely the prerogative of the young. If the hostess be your dearest school-friend, tell her privately, when you are admitted to a boudoir chat, how much you admire her qualities as housewife and hostess; but do not allow your appreciation to effervesce when she is doing her best to bear her blushing honors with meekness and dignity, for it is a hard combination for a young hostess to sustain. "Although I have remained late, the evening has seemed very short," says one; "Time is very unkind, and so I must say 'good evening,' " says another. A matron who has enjoyed years of complete social success extends her hand to a younger entertainer and says, "Before saying adieu, let me thank you for a most delightful evening;" but she does not prolong her leave-taking further than to add a brief good-night. 
There was a time when appreciation of the dinner was expressed in the leave-taking, but the custom does not prevail among men and women of the younger generation. It was a pleasing and proper acknowledgment when an invitation to one's table signified the most sacred form of social hospitality, but though an invitation to dine still suggests a desire for some degree of social intimacy, the giving of dinners has grown to be more of a formality since that time.