Friday, August 2, 2019

Social Evolution and Manners

The “fashionable” manner of to day is simple, cordial and free from all affectation. Good manners inspired by principles, prompted by good fellowship and polished by good form, will fit one for good society anywhere. – Mrs. Burton Kingsland, 1901 

Our society is in evolution, but the anxiety to learn the often painful dread of making a mistake, is reassuring. They are “growing pains.” Bonaparte took lessons of the great actor, Talma, how to comport himself in his new dignity and had his court drilled in etiquette as he did his army in military tactics. When the Great, Catherine of Russia gave receptions to her nobility, she was obliged to publish certain rules of conduct that would be unnecessary now with the most untaught peasant. Gentlemen were not to get drunk before the feast was ended; ladies were enjoined not to wipe their mouths on the table cloth, and noblemen were forbidden to strike their wives in company. The curiosity is still to be met within books on table talk and the edict no doubt was needed.

Formerly there was an etiquette of war. The Frenchmen at Fontenoy, face to face with their English opponents, politely bade them “fire first.” But these well-mannered men oppressed their peasants, and in private broke all the commandments of courtesy which we revere. This discrepancy between form and fact has brought discredit upon the subject of polite observances in the minds of some, who say: “Give us truth before all things.” They say that rules of etiquette involve a degree of dissimulation that often implicates us in positive hypocrisy, in unequivocal falsehood that none should justify. They ask “Why palliate untruths because they seem a kind of social obligation?” This is a question for social casuists to decide. No thinking person would undervalue truth, but, like all good things, it may be carried to excess.

A very, amiable woman once called upon a friend with a new-born baby. “Isn't she a pretty baby?” asked the delighted mother. An affirmative answer was given, but the next day the mother received a note saving: “On reflection I have concluded that I was not truthful when I said your baby was pretty. I do not think her a pretty baby, but I don't doubt that she is a good one and I hope may prove a great joy to you.” One cannot but feel that in this instance, Truth was wounded in the house of her friends. The deeper truth of kindness and sympathy that for the moment saw the baby through its mother's loving eyes was sacrificed to the surface truth that appeared after cool and unsympathetic reflection. We are not justified, however, in declaring to a friend that we are bored at an entertainment and are going home and in the next breath telling our hostess that we are indebted to her for a very delightful evening. Nor may we say to our friend, “Don't introduce me to that cad,” and the next minute while shaking his hand, repeat the formula, “Happy to meet you”— unless one can say it in such level perfunctory tones that conventionality owes nothing to cordiality and yet is satisfied.

Politeness consists in repressing ill-natured comments in the first place, not in asserting the contrary afterward. There are a few persons who are rebellious about some rules of etiquette which seem useless for those of high moral caliber; but as other laws are made for the majority, so are those of social convention especially for those who are prone to transgress. Under the head of such forms come the rules of chaperonage and most important it is that all young men and women should observe the formalities ordained, in their intercourse with each other, no mattar how well-fitted they may be in particular instances to take care of themselves. 

One is compelled sometimes to make personal sacrifices for the good of the many. Of course very few of the rules of good form are absolute and unchangeable and they must be more or less regulated by standards of the people one lives with and the requirements of the place in which one resides. The old riddle asks. “What is the keynote to good manners?” The answer “Be natural.” Natural manners are always the most charming, provided that one is well bred, otherwise the self-revelation is unpleasant. The “fashionable” manner of to day is simple, cordial and free from all affectation. Good manners inspired by principles, prompted by good fellowship and polished by good form, will fit one for good society anywhere. – Mrs. Burton Kingsland, 1901

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

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