Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Etiquette's Ancient History

During the reign of Louis XIV, the behavior at French Court functions, if correct, was "according to the ticket." 

On Manners of Other Days

Etiquette is a French word which means simply "ticket" or "label." During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) the functions at the French Court were so elaborate, that it became necessary to give every visitor a ticket (une étiquette) on which were listed the formalities he was expected to observe. Thus, his behavior, if correct, was "according to the ticket." It is in the sense that we have taken the word in the English and it is become to mean a code of conduct or behavior that is considered socially correct.

But long before the French Court in all its complexity adopted this device, in fact long before Western civilization came into being, ancient philosophers were concerned with man's conduct in relation to his fellows. No people have ever paid close closer attention to the matter of formal courtesy than the ancient Chinese. 


The "Li Ki," compiled by Confucius over twenty five hundred years ago, says, "Of all the methods for the ordering of man, there is none more urgent than the use of ceremonies." Yet Confucius, who was a stickler for the proprieties of social custom, cautioned against letting behavior become too elaborate. "In this matter of rituals and ceremonies," he wrote, "rather then be extravagant, be simple."

There are numerous other examples from the Chinese, many of which are so solidly founded in common sense that they apply today. For example, Chuang Tse (fifth century B.C.) said simply: "If you are always offending others by your superiority, you will come to grief. Trying to make of the customs of Chu succeed in Lu is like pushing a boat on land." To Chuang Tse society was "an agreement between a certain number of families and individuals to abide by certain customs."

The ancient sacred books of the Hindus and Buddhists also contain many excellent rules for behavior, some of which sound so modern that they might appear in one of today's etiquette columns. One of these cautions us against picking our teeth, blowing our noses loudly, yawning without covering our mouths, and biting our nails.                    
Eleanor Roosevelt pictured on her  1962, "Common Sense Book of Etiquette"
I was told as a child that it was discourteous to eat everything on my plate when I was a guest. To do so was an indication of greediness and implied that the hostess have not provided enough to eat. Indian children were told the same thing nearly two thousand years ago, for one of the Puranas cautions: "No man should eat so as nothing will be left of his meal."
— Eleanor Roosevelt, 1962

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator and Editor for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia