Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Etiquette and the Ceremonial Observances of Society

Polite conduct is not necessarily more exclusive than correct speaking.

It is quite a mistake to suppose that the ceremonial observances of society are merely a set of edicts arbitrarily established by the capricious tyrant, Fashion, for the government only of her slavish subjects. Polite conduct is not necessarily more exclusive than correct speaking. The laws of the one are indeed, like those of the other, founded upon the usage of the refined few, but there is no better reason why these should enjoy a monopoly of good manners than of good grammar. 

There are many, however, who seem to think that social ceremonies are so many frivolous afiectations by which the wealthy or fashionable strive to raise themselves to a factious elevation above others, and consequently refuse all observance of them with scorn. It is an unfortunate thing for general culture when the many acquire such a prejudice against the few that in their aversion to their pretentious superiority they reject their real excellence. 

The small class of the rich and refined have time to cultivate the elegancies of life; and although, in the excess of their leisure, they superadded a variety of frivolous ceremonies, their example in what is practically useful should be followed. Wesley used to say, when advocating the adaptation of the music of the opera and theatre to the sacred songs of the Church, that he did not know why the devil should have all the best tunes. We may ask, with equal reason, why Fashion should have all the good manners, and elevation above others, and consequently refuse all observance of them with scorn. 

It would be easy to show that many ceremonious observances which appear at first sight frivolous are founded upon a solid basis of common sense. Consider, for example, that rule of the dinner-table, "Do not ask twice for soup," This appears at first sight both silly and arbitrary. It is, however, a very sensible ordinance, and is to be justified by the laws of health, and the general comfort and convenience. The soup, being a fluid substance, can easily be absorbed in small quantities, and, thus taken, is a good reason for ceremony, and preparative for the solidities of the dinner. 

If, however, the stomach is deluged with it, the appetite and digestion become weakened, and there is neither the inclination to eat nor the power to digest the more substantial food essential to the due nutrition of the body. As for the convenience or comfort of the single-plate rule, no one can deny it who has ever looked upon an array of hungry guests whose eager appetite for the coming roast has been forced to an impatient delay by some social monster capable of asking twice for soup. The cook in the meantime is, of course, thrown out in his calculations, and the dish, when it does come at last, is either spoiled by overcooking, or cold from being withdrawn so long from the fire. The guests thus are not only tried in temper by a protracted expectation, but balked of their anticipated enjoyment.

The advantage of not putting the knife in the mouth will be obvious, we suppose, to all who are conscious that the one can cut and the other is capable of being cut. There is an excellent chemical reason for that other table rule which forbids the use of a knife of steel with the fish, the ordinary sauces of which combine with the metal, and produce a composition neither wholesome nor appetizing.

A sampling from Bazaar's "Book of Decorum"