Of late, I have seen frequent mention of “good manners” as something apart from “society manners,” and I am curious to learn when and how the distinction arose. If society has not good manners, more is the pity. If good manners are not recognized in society, what is one to think? Not long ago, I heard it remarked of a charming young girl, “Oh, she has real society manners.” It set me wondering if there was only an affectation of good manners among people who claim to be society people. When I see a man or woman, old or young, rich or poor, dressed in brocade or fustian, attentive to the old, considerate of the feeble, kind to the young and inexperienced, I pronounce them good mannered. If forgetful of self, they are thoughtful of all who come within their circle, it would seem to me such are really possessed of good manners. If these are not society manners, so much the worse for society.
Many a young girl has been trained to walk and to dance gracefully, to enter and leave a room properly and yet has not known the rudiments of good manners. I have met young girls who were natural and graceful, who could talk intelligently on the current topics of the day, who had the power to please and practiced all the little acts of politeness so becoming to youth, yet they had been reared on ranches remote from the great cities and knew nothing of clubs, hops, or what is called society. Society used to have a deeper meaning than it now has. It meant more than dance and drivel, simper and flirt, and the key that opened its magic doors was not gilded. It only required worth, education, a desire to please and a willingness to be pleased to make one a member of the best society. The change has not been for the better.
It is a very small circle that arrogates to itself the title—society. The supercilious air, the cold, repellent look, the scarcely disguised disdain of those considered outside the pale, provoke investigation of the claims adduced and cause wise people to despise the shallow pretense. Good manners are never assumed, they are part of the person who is distinguished by them. Society manners seem often like my lady’s opera cloak, laid aside when the play is ended and reserved for the next public occasion.
Selfishness is one cause of bad manners. I have seen a child select the best seat in a room and keep it while her elders stood, and I pitied both the child and her mother. At entertainments in private houses I have blushed for the conduct of young men who flattered themselves that because of the faultless fit of their evening dress, they were gentlemen, while they struggled for entrance to the refreshment rooms and rudely grabbed the delicacies placed before them, utterly oblivious of the fact that ladies were yet unserved. They insolently called for articles not on the table, and conducted themselves like barbarians while claiming to be members of the best society, and they would have stared in wonder to see one not of their set enter upon the scene, though showing by every act that he was a gentleman. Selfishness caused their rude deportment.
In the cars, the same spirit is constantly displayed. Well dressed men stretch themselves across two seats, having paid for only one, and decline to see a tired laborer or a poor woman standing in the aisle. They arc as impervious to looks of appeal or of indignation as the hide of a rhinoceros is to boiled peas. Selfishness again. And so, all through life, one finds examples of bad manners exhibited by people who claim to be leaders in all things polite. — San Jose Mercury, 1896
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