Monday, June 1, 2015

Etiquette and Victorian Snobs

The London Spectator Explains Bad Manners:

Snobbishness the Cause of Society's Rudeness— The Steady Improvement 
"Did you hear? The smart people gave up being formally polite and making bows and 'graceful inclinations of assent' when the middle class grew polite and shopboys and shopgirls adopted the etiquette of the old regime?"

No doubt manners just now appear to be growing uglier and ruder. It is, however, merely a conventional, and not a real roughness and rudeness. And the reason for it is plain. The manners of the upper classes in England are putting on a veneer of roughness, and adopting the use of "rustication," to employ the architectural phrase, for the same reason that society is always changing or tending to change its place of meeting in the park. That reason is the desire to get away, to keep separate from the herd.

The smart people gave up being formally polite and making bows and "graceful inclinations of assent" when the middle class grew polite and shop-boys and shop-girls adopted the etiquette of the old regime. When the manners of those below them in the social scale became thoroughly polite, the only way of escape was the adoption of a self conscious roughness. It became the right thing to say, "May I have a dance" in Mayfair, because at middle class balls a beautiful bow and a formal demand have become the fashion.
Haven't you heard? It's for the same reason that we're always changing, or tending to change, our place of meeting in the park? We need to get away, to "keep separate from the herd." 
Society is only apparently unmannerly because it is trying to dodge its humbler followers and arrange a set of conventions which will not be pirated. As soon, however, as its retreat is discovered, it will have to find a new device. Then, in all probability, we shall see a reaction in favor of formality and our young men and maidens will bow and simper and pass formal compliments after the manner of the eighteenth century. But, after all, these things are only externals, and really matter very little. The main fact is that our manners in essentials are growing less, not more, rough.

If we take the wider view of the social situation, we shall see that men are less, not more, disagreeable than they used to be. Let any one who doubts this compare the way men treat each other when alone to the way in which they acted 40 years ago. Tho old ideas of what was fair in the way of "roosting" a fool or a boor or a nervous man have completely changed, and few now can be found to defend the old fashioned style of practical joke. Theodore Hook was not counted a specially rude or discourteous man by his contemporaries. If he tried to practice his form of wit now he would not be tolerated for an hour in the society of well bred people, and no doubt if even in the stables, his ways would be counted possible. Instead of our manners decaying they are steadily improving.—The London Spectator, 1896

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